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Year In Review: Politics, Capital Planning, Llodra Departure, State And Local Budget Issues Dominated



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A midyear announcement that four-term First Selectman Pat Llodra would not seek a fifth kicked off a long and busy political season culminating in a historic swivel in political power that saw Democratic majorities dominating and taking leadership of most elected boards following November elections.

Capital planning and the official Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) that serves as a five-year road map for school and municipal projects were subject to an unusual level of attention as officials mulled over municipal projects to prioritize.

Local elected leaders struggled to complete an annual operating budget as anticipated municipal grant revenue from Hartford went on the chopping block during a protracted state budget process.

These were among the subjects that dominated the local government and municipal beat for The Newtown Bee in 2017.

At the same time, the Chamber of Commerce ramped up collaborations with the municipal Economic Development office and C.H. Booth Library, all with an eye on attracting, retaining, and growing local economic development with events that drew thousands to town, and support services that included myriad business talks, workshops, and even providing 3D printing access to budding inventors and entrepreneurs.

Newtown Health District also kept very busy this year, maintaining its stepped-up educational campaign tied to tickborne disease prevention, supporting Heart Month, food safety, and other health improvement and awareness campaigns, all while monitoring the escalating toll of the opioid epidemic that continued to take lives and drive hundreds of residents to seek help for themselves or loved ones who were grappling with addiction.

And news related to 12/14 continued to develop, from the relocation of the Rock of Angels to the finalization of a site for the permanent Sandy Hook memorial, to work being done locally by nonprofits launched by victims' survivors, and marking the fifth year since 26 lives were taken on that fateful December morning in 2012.

Capital Planning

Newtown's Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) was one of the first and last things taken up in 2017 by the Legislative Council.

The five-year planning and capital bonding road map was on the council's agenda January 4 as officials considered two major requests for capital spending - one to supplement an already complex and somewhat controversial high school auditorium renovation, and the other to use surplus funds authorized for Fairfield Hills building demolition for other campus improvement projects. The call for more CIP detail was led by Council Chair Mary Ann Jacob, as she and her colleagues weighed approving the pending CIP, and particularly projects in the 2017-2018 fiscal cycle whose bonding debt service will be built into next year's proposed municipal budget.

Taxpayers in the April budget referendum approved a number of CIP projects for bonding in the 2017-18 fiscal year including: $850,000 for the planning, design, engineering, replacement, and construction of a new roof at Hawley School; $1.8 million for the planning, design, engineering, and construction of improvements at Newtown Middle School; $3 million for the planning, design, engineering and construction of a new senior center; $300,000 for the planning and design of a new Newtown Police headquarters; $750,000 for the planning, design, engineering, and construction of Newtown High School Auditorium Phase II Renovations and improvements.

As the campaign for first selectman heated up in late summer, Democratic candidate Dan Rosenthal was hinting at making adjustments to the planning document if elected.

Mr Rosenthal pegged a couple of projects that might be postponed or even scrapped to free up more money to escalate road improvements. Coincidentally, one of those planned projects is a $600,000 municipal truck washing station - a facility promoted as mission critical to preserving and reducing maintenance costs on town-owned vehicles that play a major role in keeping Newtown's roads clear and safe, particularly during and after winter storm events.

Another planned CIP expenditure he flagged was further improvements to the Eichler's Cove public marina, boat launch, and swimming area near the Monroe town border. He suggested that in times of dwindling resources, projects that can generate enough revenues to help pay for themselves should be prioritized - something he could not see in relation to the planned $500,000 Eichler's Cove project scheduled for the 2018-19 fiscal cycle.

After some discussion during its regular meeting October 2, the Board of Selectmen ranked and approved next year's proposed capital projects, sending them and the balance of the 2018-2022 CIP to the Board of Finance. On the request of Selectman Herb Rosenthal, whose son is current First Selectman Dan Rosenthal, the board considered whether to break from a formalized process and delay acting on the CIP until after a new administration is seated on December 1.

Mr Rosenthal said that with such uncertainty at the state level, and its implications on Newtown's municipal budget situation, it might be better to hold off on approving any capital planning and leave it up to whomever is elected to the board.

The newly seated Legislative Council voted unanimously to suspend its own rules before a lengthy discussion followed by eight of the 12 council members voting to return the previously passed town CIP to the Board of Selectmen and subsequently the Board of Finance for further review and possible action. During deliberation on December 18, selectmen led by newly elected First Selectman Dan Rosenthal reconsidered the coming year's bonding and capital authorizations making a number of changes including some that Mr Rosenthal had hinted at during his campaign.

The council, awaiting a final recommendation from a newly seated Board of Finance, took up some high level discussion of the CIP at its final meeting of the year on December 20.

Llodra Era Ends

First Selectman Pat Llodra, who led the community through eight often tumultuous years as the community's top elected official, announced in May that she would not be seeking a fifth term. The news prompted an outpouring of immediate praise from many corners.

State Senator Tony Hwang described the departing official as tireless, selfless, and strong. Resident and State Representative Mitch Bolinsky said he regarded Mrs Llodra as a fair, responsive, and responsible municipal leader.

"First Selectman Pat Llodra has been the personification of leadership," Representative JP Sredzinski said.

The news also brought an outpouring of sentiments from local officials, US Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, US Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty, Lieutenant Governor Nancy Wyman, and Governor Dannel Malloy.

During her final weeks in office, recognition activities honoring her were held during a mid-November Legislative Council meeting, and a brief farewell reception convened welcoming dozens of town staffers and well-wishers on November 21.

In her farewell interview with The Newtown Bee, Mrs Llodra reflected, "Sometimes my work as the CEO was so pressure-packed, so full of problems and concerns, that I didn't or couldn't take the time to gather my perspective, reflect on alternatives, defer or delay action, until more thought could be applied. Doing things differently has to do with process, so when I think back over eight years, there is no one thing that hits me as a bad decision; it's always reflecting on process. Did I take the time? Did I back off from the problem enough to not feel so intense about it?"

One of the things Mrs Llodra said she is most proud of is her practice of "first leading with my heart, before my head."

"I wanted to be sure when I was making those hard decisions that it wasn't completely driven by that cognitive, intellectualizing of the problem. But it was always influenced by my love of this community and what's best for us: the people I serve. And applying a solution that does the greatest good, or the least harm." Sometimes that was a tough call, but, "That's kind of who I am," she said.

State, Local Budget Issues

Issues involving the local and state budgets were never far from discussions among community leaders as Newtown and 168 other Connecticut municipalities struggled to put 2017-18 operating and school budgets in place, while state officials and lawmakers lagged to the point where the latest two-year state budget that was finally signed into law on October 31 - making it the last state spending plan to be enacted anywhere in the nation this year.

On January 17, First Selectman Pat Llodra did not offer a lot of specific budget details as Selectmen Will Rodgers and Herb Rosenthal were just receiving the voluminous document that evening. Instead, she outlined some of the theory and reasoning for the decisions that were made during the budget development process, while Finance Director Robert Tait reviewed his methodology behind how he was presenting a number of cost and spending scenarios in the proposal.

Reading from introductory pages that began with organizational values, Mrs Llodra related that the town is dedicated to providing quality services in a cost-effective manner.

"This commitment to quality depends upon a dedicated partnership between residents, elected officials, and the employees of the town," the first selectman stated. "The Town of Newtown has expectations and values shared by all to ensure organizational excellence and quality service."

Those expectations included: getting closer to residents and businesses; committing to the highest ideals of professionalism and integrity; improving relations among all employees; using the appropriate technology; and continuing a commitment to long range planning. After a review of Newtown's 2017-18 emergency services spending allocations, as well as a number of accounts tied to various town government agencies during the first of three planned budget sessions January 23, the Board of Selectmen concluded its business for the evening approving 18 of the 19 requests before them.

By early February, Gov Malloy was touting a proposed mandate relief package designed to increase local control over budgets and contracts, keep down project costs, modernize out-of-date requirements, and remove unnecessary red tape. The news was initially well-received by Mrs Llodra.

But just a few days later, the worm turned as Gov Malloy floated his 2017 proposal and related municipal reductions, exasperating Mrs Llodra along with members of Newtown's legislative delegation.

"The magnitude is so great that I am struggling even to grasp its possibility," she replied in an e-mail that contained references to specific state cuts that, if articulated, would "be very impactful to Newtown."

Mrs Llodra called not only Newtown's legislative delegation, but local "board and commission members, and concerned residents to join together in an effort against the draconian measures suggested by the governor's proposal," which dealt the community $4.8 million less next year in state aid.

"Stability and growth in Newtown will be irreparably harmed, delayed, and maybe set back for years if this proposal prevails," Mrs Llodra said. "I understand the challenges faced by our cities and accept that we all have a stake in the solution. However, destroying the financial underpinnings of selected towns in order to help our cities will not solve their problems, and will only exacerbate ours."

Following separate testimonies at the State Capitol March 1, Mrs Llodra and Legislative Councilman Ryan Knapp requested and received confirmation that Ben Barnes, secretary of the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management (OPM), would be coming to Newtown, March 15, to appear before the full council. He said instead of continuing to propose unsustainable state spending plans that would do further financial damage, 2018 is the year Mr Barnes and state leaders were proposing "a series of recurring solutions."

Those solutions include a $400 million reduction in state aid to municipalities. While Mr Barnes acknowledged that Newtown was facing a "meaningful hit," he said the town's 9.9 percent fund balance was enviable compared to the state's, and reminded officials that a number of communities, both large cities and smaller towns, were facing near catastrophic financial challenges.

While recognizing that Newtown and many other communities have maintained good financial practices including conservative management of a municipal fund balance and practical use of capital nonrecurring spending that elevated the community's bond ratings, he said local taxpayers may need to sacrifice in order to assist others who have not managed their finances as well.

Since the governor's budget proposal was announced, Mrs Llodra and then-Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, worked with state lawmakers and local officials to estimate the liability state mandates and local grant reductions might realistically shift onto Newtown taxpayers, and helped finalize local spending plans for next year under the assumption that Newtown's net loss in state aid would equal about $3 million. The council then deliberated either endorsing a local budget request that, if and when endorsed, could underfund the local spending plan forcing further operating reductions in process, a supplemental tax bill, or some combination of the two - or a level of taxation that could result in a budget surplus, in effect overtaxing local property owners.

Following discussion of a resolution produced by Legislative Council Chair Mary Ann Jacob, council officials voted to support the action recognizing that a state budget proposal could redistribute revenues related to Education Funding and other intergovernmental revenues; and that Newtown stands to lose a net of $3,814,563 in revenue. If that level of taxation produced any surplus once state revenues were clarified, Mrs Llodra proposed restoring funding in a prioritized manner to several specific reductions made to deliver referendum voters an overall spending request that accounts for that estimated $3.8 million shortfall.

With 3,385 ballots cast in local referendum voting April 25, voters measurably approved both the proposed municipal and school operating budgets for 2017-18, as well as all six capital project authorizations on the ballot. While local voters were accustomed to the split ballot for the school and town spending plans, it was the first budget referendum following a charter revision that moved a number of the most costly town and school capital projects to the ballot.

Early Start For Politics

Traditionally, the local political campaign season in Newtown starts after candidates make appearances in the annual Labor Day Parade, but this year was far from the norm.

With the late May announcement that Mrs Llodra would not seek a fifth term, three sets of running mates seized the opportunity to announce their political intentions right after Memorial Day, along with a fourth aspiring candidate.

In two brief and separate press avails Tuesday, May 30, former Democratic councilman and current Police Commissioner Dan Rosenthal, and Republican Legislative Council Chair Mary Ann Jacob formalized their intentions to seek the first selectman's seat.

Selectman and former council Chairman Will Rodgers announced he would be seeking the local GOP's endorsement for first selectman, and current Board of Education member Andrew Clure told The Newtown Bee on May 31 that he would also be seeking the GOP's nomination to run for the town's top elected seat.

With no vocal opposition, dozens of local Democrats joined together for their party caucus July 20 at Edmond Town Hall and vociferously endorsed a slate of candidates for municipal elections that included Mr Rosenthal for first selectman, Maureen Crick Owen for selectman, along with a full underticket of newcomers and incumbents.

Mr Clure opted to petition his way onto the ballot after a packed GOP caucus July 24 brought 350 Republicans out to support the party's endorsed ticket, with former council Chairman Jeff Capeci emerging as Will Rodgers' running mate. It also prompted an announcement by Ms Jacob along with fellow council representative and selectman candidate Neil Chaudhary that they would proceed with plans to mount a September 12 primary to determine which Republican leaders would appear on the ballot. The GOP caucus also prompted a primary competition between incumbent Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia Halstead and former Assistant Town Clerk Ann LoBosco.

That primary put the Rodgers/Capeci team on the official ticket for November, and eliminated Ms LoBosco from a slot on the party line. However, the eager town clerk candidate vowed she would continue her pursuit of the office with a write-in campaign.

To make the busy local election cycle even more complicated, Ms LoBosco learned that she would be joined on the November 7 municipal election ballot by fellow Republican Board of Education candidate Deborra Zukowski - forced to withdraw from the GOP's party line and mount a write-in campaign.

While Ms LoBosco's write-in run for town clerk was a matter of choice following her primary loss, Ms Zukowski's move from an official GOP-endorsed candidate to a write-in line on the November ballot resulted from a complex snafu involving a state election statute and a recent Newtown Charter revision. The mechanics of how this happened even exasperated Town Attorney David Grogins, who referenced a convoluted clash between state ballot statutes and a Newtown Charter provision involving the minimum minority makeup of Newtown's school board.

When all was said and done November 7, it was Democrat Dan Rosenthal capturing the first selectman's seat in local voting. This win would bring a third generation of the Rosenthal family to Newtown's top elected seat. Mr Rosenthal's father, Herb, served from 1997 to 2007, and his grandfather, Jack, held consecutive terms from 1976 to 1987.

Dan Rosenthal's running mate Maureen Crick Owen was also successful as the top vote-getter for the Board of Selectmen's race, joining Republican Selectman candidate and former Legislative Council Chairman Jeff Capeci on the board.

Reflecting on his apparent victory as poll numbers came in, Mr Rosenthal noted that, "People got behind us, and how do I thank people for giving in ways that I never asked them to? How do I repay, except to say I love you all."

Local municipal election results mirrored polling outcomes that were seen across Connecticut and the nation, with Democrats taking over majorities on virtually every elected Newtown panel.

Ben Barnes, secretary of the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management (OPM) came to Newtown March 15 to speak with top elected leaders and telegraphing financial concerns that would pitch local budgetmakers into chaos as state budget negotiations ground to a crawl and delayed the implementation of a state spending plan into the end of October. (Bee file photo)
A memorial to those killed on 12/14, that arrived and was installed behind St John's Church in Sandy Hook against the Town's wishes, Rock of Angels was relocated to a site in Bristol on October 18 after the house of worship and neighboring property was put up for sale. (Bruce Moulthrop photo)
By early summer, the Riverside On Lake Zoar Association, or ROLZA, was celebrating a neighborhood victory after organizing its residents and negotiating earlier in the year with elected leaders to re-acquire a small beach, pavilion, and boat launch that had been previously taken by the town. (Bee file photo)
Outgoing four-term Republican First Selectman Pat Llodra poses with incoming Democratic First Selectman Dan Rosenthal during a late November swearing-in ceremony at Edmond Town Hall. (Bee file photo)
Newtown's free health clinic, Kevin's Community Center, celebrated a decade-and-a-half goal by establishing its own permanent facility on Commerce Road - which was purchased by the nonprofit and occupied in midsummer, culminating in an early August grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony. (Bee file photo)
Sandy Hook resident and leader of the Team 26 cycling team Monte Frank hands over a Newtown Police Department patch to Chief James Viadero during a rally welcoming home the weather-beaten group from their fifth annual ride May 5. For the first time, the cyclists opted to ride from Washington, DC, to Newtown meeting with supporters and advocating for national common sense firearms legislation. (Bee file photo)
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