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Year In Review: Greater Citizen Engagement, New Projects, Historical Midterms Among Year’s Highlights

Published: December 29, 2018 at 07:00 am

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The year 2018 was marked with increasing citizen engagement, from the halls of government to local philanthropic support to simply turning out and voting for state and national candidates as well as local capital projects.

It was a year that saw Newtown inching closer to opening its first-ever community center, a year that saw approval for a new police headquarters after decades of making the best of a deteriorating facility, and finally digging in — aggressively responding to demands for local road repairs and resurfacing.

As The Newtown Bee closes out 2018, below are five of the top issues or news events reflecting the efforts (or exploits) of Newtown’s municipal government, its staff, agencies, and appointed and elected officials.

View From The Top

Newly elected First Selectman Dan Rosenthal hit the first week of his first full year as Newtown’s top municipal office running. He and fellow Selectmen Jeff Capeci and Maureen Crick Owen met and initiated the process of forming a new Community Center Oversight Committee with plans to formalize the panel into a permanent commission that would be codified by ordinance and eventually in the Town Charter if deemed appropriate.

During their first regular meeting of the new year, January 2, selectmen also unanimously approved formally naming the gallery space in the Municipal Center’s main hallway and a requested property easement for the local volunteer underwater search and rescue organization; they also heard a brief update on progress toward developing a permanent memorial honoring those lost on 12/14.

The town’s top elected body — the Legislative Council — also shifted into high gear during the early days of 2018, gathering at Town Hall South along with a number of local officials and department heads to continue the process of moving a five-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) to completion before a Charter-mandated deadline.

The issue of space coordination was introduced during questioning of representatives from the C.H. Booth Library, which included library board Chairman Robert Geckle and Acting Library Director Beryl Harrison. Council Chairman Paul Lundquist said part of what he needed to understand in order to make the best decisions about the CIP was what the library “wants to be” to the community versus neighboring Edmond Town Hall and the soon-to-be-built community center.

Councilman Ryan Knapp expressed concern that potential users shopping for activity space could initiate a “bidding war” among the three entities to access the lowest possible rental rate for needed space. Town Hall Operations Manager Sheila Torres agreed, saying the prospect of “cannibalization concerns me.”

In mid-May, following through on a campaign promise made by Mr Rosenthal, town agency and department heads were notified that the local Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) will incorporate requests for bonding going out ten years. The current and past CIPs had encompassed five-year windows of anticipated capital spending requests.

The first selectman told The Newtown Bee that it is just “good planning” to expand the capital project funding timeline from five to ten years, saying he believes it will help make the process of developing annual CIP updates much more transparent for residents and taxpayers who ultimately benefit from these large-scale projects.

The first public discussion of a planned November referendum to seek funding for a new police headquarters surfaced during First Selectman Rosenthal’s report at a special Board of Finance meeting July 16. Mr Rosenthal reminded finance officials that the Board of Selectmen recommended the town purchase two abutting lots and a well-equipped and maintained commercial building at 191 South Main Street.

“From a cost standpoint, there is no question that 191 [South Main] offered the best potential for delivering a project for the lowest cost,” Mr Rosenthal said.

The first of two notable municipal vehicle purchases in 2018 catapulted the municipality into the era of electric cars. The town’s new all-electric Chevrolet Bolt subcompact hatchback was put into service in early May. The demonstration vehicle, which the town acquired through a grant program, has a range of 238 miles on a charge and is wrapped with the legend “Go Green Newtown.”

Newtown’s Sustainable Energy Commission oversaw the electric car’s acquisition, which was slated to be used by municipal zoning and health inspectors.

Then, after driving around for the first eight months of his term in a near vintage and mechanically dysfunctional Jeep 4x4 that was first acquired when his father was in office, Mr Rosenthal finally took delivery of a low milage pre-owned vehicle for his use.

“With all the low mileage off-lease vehicles out there and the ability to purchase extended warranties like we have on this one, I think Newtown should be looking at more pre-owned vehicles,” Mr Rosenthal told The Newtown Bee a few days after acquiring the 2017 Chevrolet Traverse, a dark blue, all-wheel drive SUV with the easily identifiable “1-NT” marker plate.

That same week, Newtown was on the verge of hiring its first purchasing agent. When voters endorsed the 2018-19 school and town budgets last April, their authorization included $100,000 to develop a new job that for years has been recommended and touted as a means by which both the school district and town could save money.

During discussions that included the budget recommendation providing a salary and benefit package for the new position, the plan was supported by a majority of council members following endorsements from the Boards of Selectmen and Finance.

By late fall, Newtown had hired Rick Spreyer for the position after a months-long search and selection process. Mr Spreyer arrived on the job after more than a decade of work in purchasing, procurement, and supply chain management, along with experience in business management and contract negotiations. He will be responsible for all administrative duties relative to the procurement and disposition of supplies and services for all Board of Selectmen and Board of Education departments.

In addition to his purchasing and contract negotiation experience, Mr Spreyer had been a project manager and a business owner, providing him with strong leadership and strategic planning background, according to a release.

As paving season wound to a close in late fall, Mr Rosenthal’s year-long goal of stepped-up local road work and securing the funds to sustain these roads remained in focus. As a major platform of his election campaign the year before, the first selectman said he would utilize both operating and bonded funds to respond to one of the most widespread causes of resident complaints.

As part of the road program in 2018, the first selectman also initiated an expanded chip sealing program that sought to smooth the surfaces of three times as many local roads as could be done through conventional patching and resurfacing practices, which were reserved only for only the most severely deteriorating local roads.

All About That Budget

Dan Rosenthal’s first pass as the town’s newly elected First Selectman at producing an annual municipal spending plan just weeks after taking office was driven by contractual payroll increases, planned investments in road improvements, important technology upgrades, and adding a long-sought purchasing professional to the town’s payroll.

If adopted by the Legislative Council, the Boards of Selectmen and Finance, and local voters as proposed by Mr Rosenthal, the spending plan aimed at boosting road repairs and maintenance by a quarter-million dollars, funding required upgrades to vital municipal computer systems, and furthering a pledge to increasing “shared services” with the Board of Education.

Another fractional line in the approximately $41 million request proposed spending $3,000 to lease a new vehicle for the town’s top elected official.

The Board of Selectmen wrapped up its part of the municipal budget work during a regular meeting February 5, along with approving the firm that will design a new police headquarters and endorsing a Business Incentive Plan for a planned assisted living facility at the intersection of Church Hill Road and The Boulevard.

After reducing the line for the town’s self-funded employee health plan by $40,000 due to continuing down-trending claims and shifting $20,000 more into the first selectman’s contingency account, the panel moved a proposed $41,072,967 budget request to the Board of Finance for review, which would trigger somewhere between a 1.45 and 1.5 percent increase in the local tax rate if eventually approved by voters.

On March 1, the Board of Finance completed its work on the proposed 2018-19 school district and municipal budgets, recommending a $41,087,967 spending plan to cover municipal expenses and capital project debt service and a request of $75,979,231 to fund the school district. A final motion on a bottom line total 2018-19 town and school budget proposal in the amount of $117,067,198 — a 2.3 percent overall increase — then headed to the Legislative Council for final review.

By early April, the Legislative Council had completed its review of the budget, sending voters a municipal proposal of $41,066,967, and a school spending plan requesting $76,054,231. In addition, voters were being asked to accept or reject two bonding authorizations: $1.5 million for the planning, design, engineering, reconstruction, or construction of town roads; and separately, bonding $1,685,400 to complete the replacement and/or renovation of certain sections of the Middle Gate School roof.

If approved at the referendum, taxpayers would see an increase of the 2018-19 mill rate to 34.24 mills. And despite the fact that fewer than two out of every ten qualified residents bothered to come out to the polls on April 24 and 3,385 budget votes were cast, the local municipal and school budgets, as well as two bonding authorizations, were approved.

In encapsulated form, the 2018 Borough of Newtown budget process was comparatively controversial, as a twice-rescheduled annual budget hearing and vote was set for 7:30 pm on May 31 in the Alexandria Room at Edmond Town Hall.

An initial meeting on May 8 had to be adjourned after too many residents flooded the meeting room to the point where it was over capacity by fire code, and a second attempt on May 17 was postponed by Borough Warden James Gaston out of concerns that residents might have been otherwise engaged in post-storm recovery.

The special tax district that is the Borough of Newtown had seldom motivated interest in its annual budget, related taxation, or even the election of its government officials.

An uncharacteristic interest in the Borough budget was peaked after The Newtown Bee ran a story May 4 on the proposal, focusing on the comparatively astronomical requested increase that would see the normally modest Borough spending plan increase by roughly 75 percent.

Mr Gaston explained that he and Borough burgesses hoped to amass a significant amount of funds that would be allocated for legal expenses, which needed to be in place for anticipated litigation to block a rumored multifamily development on the current site of the abandoned Inn at Newtown.

As one of the largest turnouts of Borough residents for a budget vote in memory convened May 31, voters approved a budget of $229,330 for fiscal 2018-19, which is significantly lower than the $354,300 amount that had been proposed. Voters eliminated a proposal for a so-called “special assessment.”

Also, voters greatly reduced a proposed increase in the category “legal fees.” Voters decided to earmark $25,000 for such spending. In a final show of hands vote on the Borough budget proposal, 84 of the 114 people attending voted in favor of the $229,330 spending plan.

A Lo-o-o-ng Political Season

If it seemed like local politics and campaign-related initiatives ramped up unusually early this year, it is because they did.

Saying he wanted to put his energies toward advocating for Newtown and its constituents while parlaying his statehouse experience to help affect structural changes Connecticut needs to attract new residents and retain the taxpayers and businesses here now, Republican incumbent 106th District State Representative Mitch Bolinsky announced his candidacy for a fourth term in the dwindling last days of January.

Rep Bolinsky said he decided, in part, to seek a fourth term because he was brought up to care about his community.

About a week later, incumbent Republican 112th District Representative JP Sredzinski announced he would seek a third term in November. He would end up being the only candidate in the Newtown State Delegation who would make it through the election cycle unopposed.

Similarly, incumbent Republican Judge of Probate Daniel O’Grady, whose jurisdiction includes Newtown, ran unopposed.

In early March, Newtown Board of Education Vice Chair Rebekah Harriman-Stites announced her intention to run for Connecticut’s 106th State Legislative District, opposing incumbent Rep Bolinsky. Ms Harriman-Stites said she planned to show voters that she has the hands-on experience to influence bipartisan colleagues in Hartford with strategic, fiscally responsible, and innovative representation to move Newtown and all of Connecticut forward.

Going into the Easter weekend after the admitted mishandling of a domestic violence situation between congressional staffers that sparked a firestorm of criticism and few coming to her defense — including long-time colleagues and Democratic Party faithful — US Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty announced Monday, April 2, that she would not seek reelection this November.

In mid-May, Newtown’s Eva Bermudez Zimmerman, a former town Legislative Council representative announced a run for Lieutenant Governor.

She told The Newtown Bee that she walked into the Democratic State Nominating Convention May 19 confident that she could retain 38 percent of the her promised delegate endorsements despite the “wheeling and dealing.” When all the dust settled, she walked away with 40 percent of the delegates’ support.

Registered Newtown Republicans and Democrats, as well as any unaffiliated or unregistered voter considering affiliating with a major party in time to vote, were called to turn out to their district polling locations Tuesday, August 14, to vote in statewide primaries.

The August primaries received significant attention because of open races with no incumbent running for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, the 5th District US Congressional seat, State Treasurer, and state Attorney General.

As the primary votes were tallied locally, it became apparent that Ms Bermudez Zimmerman was unsuccessful in her statewide race against former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, who would be Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont’s running mate.

As other campaigns came together for the fall midterm elections, local Democrats began familiarizing themselves with 2nd District Democratic challenger Raghib Allie Brennan, who was mounting his second campaign for the house seat occupied by first term Republican Will Duff. Voters were also learning more about State Senate candidate Michelle Lapine McCabe, who would be the 28th District challenger to Republican incumbent Senator Tony Hwang.

In late August, Senator Hwang was taking steps to remove and replace campaign signs, shirts, advertisements, and other campaign media after the Fairfield Democratic Town Committee, apparently in cooperation with his Democratic opponent Ms McCabe’s campaign, complained that he was incorporating logos and branding of two nonprofits that do not lend their names to political causes, including campaigns.

Sen Hwang admitted to using the “Be Kind” logo associated with the national nonprofit Ben’s Bells that became popular locally following the Sandy Hook tragedy, along with the branding and slogan of the Hate Has No Home Here (HHNHH) initiative. In his official statement and in a separate call from Sen Hwang, he sounded both concerned and contrite while explaining he was immediately discontinuing and pulling all media containing the nonprofits’ branding.

Two months later, several social network followers brought it to The Newtown Bee’s attention that 106th District General Assembly incumbent Rep Mitch Bolinsky had posted a Facebook promotion touting an endorsement by the Police Officers Association Of Connecticut (POACT). According to the association’s website, the POACT was “founded in 2016 to bring all police officers and police unions together, regardless of union affiliation, to be a strong and unified voice in public policy and legislation.”

The issue involved Rep Bolinsky touting the POACT’s endorsement along with an unrelated image he circulated earlier this year following a ride along with a Newtown officer.

Shortly after the endorsement and image appeared on the lawmaker’s Mitch For Newtown Facebook page, the Newtown Police Department posted a message on their Facebook site that said in part, “...the Newtown Police Department does not, and cannot, endorse any specific politician and/or political party, as per our policy. The photo utilized mistakenly represented a department officer in the referenced endorsement.”

Upon being contacted regarding the issue, Rep Bolinsky replied, taking responsibility for the post.

As the midterms arrived, Newtown voters were also called to endorse or reject an authorization to bond for a new police headquarters as well as two statewide constitutional questions. All three of those referenda passed.

On Election Day, local voting trends mirrored those nationally as nearly eight out of ten eligible Newtown voters reported to polling places around Newtown. While it may have not been the highest non-Presidential turnout for local electors, local officials agreed it was the highest in memory.

Once all the ballots were tallied, it was GOP Assembly incumbents Rep Bolinsky and Sen Hwang who would join newcomer and Democrat Allie Brennan and unopposed colleague Rep Sredzinski in Hartford for the next two years.

In other races affecting Newtown, incumbent Democratic US Senator Chris Murphy declared his victory moments after the polls closed on November 6, followed a short time later by Democratic 5th US Congressional challenger and former national Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes, who will step into the seat vacated by Rep Elizabeth Esty.

Macroburst Unleashes Destruction

The worst of Newtown’s 2018 weather woes actually began less than two weeks before the start of spring, as a heavy wet snowfall snapped countless trees, felled power lines, forced a statewide truck ban on highways, and kept all of Newtown’s plow drivers and emergency responders busy overnight and into the next morning.

Locally, light, wispy snow began swirling by around 9 am on March 7, trending heavier into the afternoon rush hour as intense bands of precipitation moved across the region, dumping accumulations of more than 14 inches by early evening.

When all was said and done, up to 24 inches fell locally in some spots by the time the storm moved off. Sandy Hook Fire & Rescue remained the busiest local fire company during that storm, logging nearly 40 calls for service by 9:30 pm Wednesday, with each of the town’s other four fire companies staying very busy throughout the night.

Up until May 15, Newtown residents may have assumed a macroburst was something you whipped up in the kitchen with a load of pasta and gobs of Kraft cheese spread.

But the devastating meteorological event that slammed Newtown and a number of other Connecticut communities was a recipe for disaster, killing two in the area and pitching thousands of local homes into darkness — both virtual and actual — as miles of electric and telecommunications lines and hundreds of utility poles came down among countless trees that choked local roadways and driveways.

Local emergency responders and dispatchers reacted quickly, prioritizing the most dire calls and sending firefighters on at least 200 runs between Tuesday evening and Wednesday. Police were equally busy, frustratingly returning to some locations where road barriers and caution tape warning of possible live electrical wires were removed by those anxious to pass, despite the obvious hazard.

Through the period, hundreds of residents also pitched in with power tools and chainsaws, assisting in clearing paths for vehicles to get into and out of various neighborhoods, while others either physically directed traffic or fashioned handmade signs that helped direct drivers as they maneuvered through labyrinths of interior roadways, sometimes taking hours to go a scant mile or two.

The following day, Governor Dannel Malloy announced that he had signed a Declaration of Civil Preparedness Emergency to assist the state and its municipalities with response and recovery efforts, giving state agencies flexibility in assisting municipalities to respond to and recover from the damages from the storms.

In addition, the Governor directed emergency management officials to begin the initial evaluation process to determine whether the federal thresholds to request a Major Disaster Declaration from President Trump could be met, which would permit the state and its eligible municipalities to receive federal aid to offset some costs of debris removal and restoration.

Ten days later, Mr Rosenthal was working with Rob Sibley, deputy director of planning and land use, coordinating Newtown’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster declaration application.

While dozens of town and contract workers using heavy equipment began the challenging chore of detangling and removing hundreds of trees felled in the storm from the hard-hit Lakeview Terrace and Cedarhurst neighborhoods the first week of June, town officials continued cobbling together the approximately $1 million the cleanup was projected to cost.

Mr Rosenthal announced to a joint meeting of the Boards of Selectmen, Finance, and the Legislative Council on Monday, August 20, that Newtown, along with a number of affected communities across the region, had received notification that a federal disaster declaration had been conveyed.

However, around the same time, it was learned that FEMA was initially denying aid to individual homeowner applicants seeking assistance to cover high deductibles or property damage outside the scope of their homeowners coverage.

Following a state appeal and pressure from federal lawmakers representing affected communities, Governor Malloy announced October 10 that the US Small Business Administration (SBA) has approved his request for disaster assistance. The declaration provided Newtown homeowners, businesses, and nonprofits, along with those in other affected communities, to receive loans from the SBA to help with the costs of both physical and economic damages.

The ensuing clean-up efforts following the May 15 storm also prompted an outpouring of gratitude and a plaque of thanks to town departments from Cedarhurst residents. The lakeside neighborhood in Newtown was one of the worst hit and a focus of Public Works Department personnel.

“They were the first area started and the last finished,” said department Director Fred Hurley. “We did not finish cleaning up until well into July.” His employees worked alongside private contractors to cut trees, haul wood, and clean up debris, Mr Hurley said.

Power To The People

Besides proposing a new Community Center Oversight Committee with plans to formalize the panel into a permanent commission in early January, First Selectman Dan Rosenthal told fellow selectmen March 19 that he was following through on a campaign promise made last fall in requesting the board establish a new ad-hoc committee.

That panel, consisting of local business leaders and other volunteers, would act as liaisons between Newtown business community members and the Board of Selectmen.

Mr Rosenthal introduced the concept of appointing a Newtown Business Advisory Committee (NBAC), and circulated a proposed framework to his colleagues ahead of the meeting. He said that committee would exist to provide recommendations and guidance to the Board of Selectmen on ways Newtown can improve its business climate.

Members would be asked to recommend revisions to town policies and regulations with an objective of retaining existing businesses and attracting new businesses to the community. Mr Rosenthal said it appears Newtown might be the first town in the state to form such a committee.

After reviewing names of individuals for consideration, selectmen appointed Don Drapo, Jr, of Curtis Packaging; Michele Hanson of the Farmhouse Restaurant; Chris Hottois of Flint Ridge Development; Adam Richichi of Dental Associates; Sue Shortt of Shortt’s Farm & Garden; Dan Sorrentino of Newtown Hardware; Erica Sullivan of Castle Hill Chocolate; Carrie Swan of Black Swan Hearth & Gift Shop; and Bruce Walczak of Relocation Consultants.

Following public outcry and news that a number of other municipalities were considering similar measures, the Legislative Council’s Ordinance Committee began looking into a proposed local ban on plastic shopping bags during a meeting April 30. During that meeting, committee members continued discussion on another environmental and public health-related proposal to ban the possession, handling, or processing of drilling fracking waste in town.

The recently formed Newtown Environmental Action Group, which already boasted 18 members, was promoting the move for the ban on plastic shopping bags. A plastic bag ban was originally floated during the administration of First Selectman Pat Llodra, when an intern she was working with introduced the idea.

Ordinance committee members also determined that there was no apparent downside to adopting a fracking waste ban similar to what is already in effect or being considered in around 40 other Connecticut communities.

In early September John Boccuzzi, Sr, and Ned Simpson, representatives of Friends of Newtown Seniors (FONS), the local grassroots organization that spearheaded the 2016 campaign to receive the AARP Age-Friendly Livable Community designation, made a presentation to selectmen.

As the presenters stated, Newtown being an age-friendly community provides a wealth of benefits that accrue to all community members. Mr Boccuzzi noted that age-friendly communities contain resources that make communities work well for people of all ages, and especially for older adults.

About a month later, the first selectman announced plans to recruit and appoint a seven-member Newtown Bike and Trail Committee by early November that would require the services of five resident volunteers to serve beside representatives of the Conservation and the Parks & Rec commissions.

Mr Rosenthal told The Newtown Bee that seating the committee is the culmination of efforts that began early this year following an exploratory meeting on the subject hosted by Parks & Rec Director Amy Mangold.

The issue of maintaining and enhancing local walking and bike trails is also a key component of Newtown’s Healthy Community initiative and was a subject of discussion during an April community meeting and brainstorming session held locally after Newtown was declared Connecticut’s second AARP Age-Friendly Livable Community.

According to documentation presented by Mr Rosenthal to fellow selectmen, the panel’s mission would be to support the development, maintenance, and enjoyment of an interconnected set of sidewalks, trails, and roadways for recreational and non-motorized transportation uses.

During regular meetings in mid-November two days apart, the Board of Selectmen and Legislative Council unanimously renewed Newtown’s participation in the Northwest Regional Workforce Investment Board (NRWIB). The multi-jurisdictional agency is charged with developing and sustaining an effective labor market system that facilitates economic development and business growth among its 41 participating municipalities.

Other benefits available through the NRWIB include municipal or shared tax credits, recruitment and assessment assistance, and financial assistance for employment and on-the-job training opportunities for employers.

By December, and with more than 30 Newtown residents stepping forward to serve, First Selectman Dan Rosenthal, with the assistance of Selectman Maureen Crick Owen and Parks & Rec Director Amy Mangold, saw the Board of Selectmen unanimously approve expanding the newly-formed Bike & Trails Committee from its originally proposed seven to nine voting members and two non-voting members.

Acting during their regular meeting December 3, selectmen also unanimously voted to seat residents Brad Accettella, Alicia De La Rosa, Geordie Elkins, Gavin Arneth, Charles Foster, Ken Kerin, Matthew Moscatelli, Dave Siroky, and Brid Craddock to the panel. The Town Conservation Commission and the Parks &

Rec Commission will each name representatives as nonvoting ex-officio board members as well.

Reporting from Newtown Bee staffers Kendra Bobowick and Andrew Gorosko was used in this recap.

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