Differences Emerge between Selectmen Candidates: Mill Rate, School Infrastructure, Witherell, PPPs

The Selectmen debates on Wednesday night were nothing if not cordial. The audience – maxed out to the room’s capacity, with the overflow had been diverted to Zoom – was exceedingly polite. Gone was the heckling and disrespectful behavior that punctuated some past debates.

There were no zingers surprise twists.

Anyone waiting for fireworks was disappointed.

LWV moderator Kay Maxwell, a Stamford resident who is past president of  both the League of Women Voters of Connecticut and League of Women Voters of the United States. Oct 11, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager 

Hanna Klingbeil, a Greenwich High School student and LWV board member, delivered the questions to the candidates, whose responses were timed. Photo: Leslie Yager

The event was moderated by Kay Maxwell from the League of Women Voters. She is a Stamford resident who is both past president of  both the League of Women Voters of Connecticut and League of Women Voters of the United States.

The League of Women Voters worked hard to organize the series of debates that kicked off Wednesday night. All debates this year are organized by the League’s VP of Voter’s Services, Becky Gillan.

Hanna Klingbeil delivered the questions.

To the untrained ear, significant differences between the candidates might have been subtle as they often agreed with one another.

But differences emerged in response to questions including balancing low mill rate with paying for infrastructure and services, future of the town-owned Nathaniel Witherell nursing home, and public-private-partnerships.

Candidates for First Selectperson Republican incumbent Fred Camillo and his Democratic challenger Laura Erickson. Oct 11, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Incumbent Fred Camillo, who is seeking a third 2-year term, is a lifelong resident of Greenwich, who previously served as a State Representative in the 151st district, talked about “growing up blue collar,” having been flooded 5 times over the decades, having family members in public housing at Armstrong Court and relatives’ stays at the town-owned nursing home.

Ms Erickson said she’d lived in town 30 years, raising three children who all went through Greenwich Public Schools K-12. She emphasized her service to the town which includes 13 years on the RTM, a four year term on Board of Education including as chair, and two terms on the Board of Estimate and Taxation, which she is currently completing.

Future of Nathaniel Witherell, Greenwich’s town-owned Nursing Home

Ms Erickson acknowledged that there had been issues with accounts receivables and their timely collection, but the nursing home board has put procedures in place to address that.

She said taking care of the town’s senior population was a core community value and a privilege to be able to do so given the property was bequeathed to the town originally for a tuberculosis hospital.

However, she said there needed to be guardrails and accountability, and that taking a write-off was “never pleasant.”

“I think it is the board’s purview to decide how the facility should be operated. It is professionally run. The board is talking about expanding its offerings to help the census and there are opportunities. Greenwich Woods closing, so there will be fewer beds in town.”

Mr. Camillo said the nursing home had been a hot topic for decades.

“It’s a cost to the town, but I agree with Laura,” he said. “We can’t stick our heads in the sand.”

He said over the past 9 years, the town had “lost $43 million in supporting it.”

He added that there were lawsuits and threats of lawsuits to factor in as well.

“If the town decides to keep it as a department, things have to change. We have to then really treat it like the departments that are the ones under the First Selectman’s authority,” Camillo said. “It’s unfortunate – the billing issue that came up. Even when it was 5-star, it had issues that didn’t get out to the public.”

“I’ve always loved it, but it doesn’t mean we can’t strive to fix it,” he continued. “Whether it’s an outside entity coming in there, the board of Nathaniel Witherell will still be there and you want to have some control over it.”

The in person crowd was maxed to capacity in the Town Hall meeting room. Others watched on Zoom. Oct 11, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Preserving Greenwich’s Low Mill Rate

Camillo talked about balancing Greenwich’s low mill rate, possibly the lowest in the state, and providing services to residents.

“A lot of people work two or three jobs to be here. We want them here. You almost have to look at it as – It’s not my money, but everybody’s money.”

“Greenwich has gotten it right since the 1930s,” Camillo added. “We’re going to continue to look at ways to deliver affordability. …When people moved here from New York City during the pandemic, they were moving to Greenwich more than other towns and that was one of the reasons.”

Erickson said while Greenwich’s low taxes were attractive, especially compared to Westchester, property owners have expectations.

She said while, “every election is a mill rate election,” public school infrastructure was the hot topic. She noted building committees were under way, including one for a major renovation to Old Greenwich School that was built in 1902 and hasn’t had a renovation in decades, and a second committee working to replace Central Middle School which was condemned in Feb 2022, evacuated, and shored up for temporarily returning children to it for up to 5 years.

“When you talk to people, they say, ‘I want my sidewalks fixed,’ Or, ‘I want a school replaced.’ Or, “I don’t want sewage flooding into my kid’s kindergarten classroom.'”

Ms Erickson said she decided to run for First Selectman after being frustrated during her service on the BET.

“I think we are under-investing in our community, and I believe short-sighted decisions being made are ultimately going to cost us more money, and taxes will have to go up eventually because we’re not planning responsibly.”

Lastly, she said she wanted shatter the myth that Democrats would raise taxes.

“The (Democratic) candidates for BET are extremely fiscally conservative and all extremely professional. There’s just no way we’re going to do that. We live here too. We need to just be honest…We are not investing in our community the way we need to be investing.”

Camillo said there were myths on both sides, and that when Democrats were in charge of the BET spent roughly $42 and $44 million respectively. And last year, with a Republican controlled BET the town spent $73 million and this year $112 million.

Public Private Partnerships

On the question about PPPs Erickson said it was important that the town hold up its end of those bargains.

“I believe in philanthropy I appreciate their giving. Many of our organizations are supported by very generous people. It’s a good thing, but we need to stress that these be priority projects. They have to be projects that everyone agrees are a priority.”

“When we enter into a P3, we need to be cognizant of our end of the deal,” she said, giving an example of the renovated Greenwich Library. “They’ve come to us the last couple of years on the BET requesting money for an elevator upgrade.  They’ve given us reports that the elevators are lurching. There have been entrapments, and maintenance costs have increased. But for two years the Republican majority on the BET has denied these requests to replace those elevators. We need to hold up our end of the deal.”

A second example she gave was the new “Cohen Eastern Greenwich Civic Center,” currently under construction. The building’s name reflects a $5 million gift from the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation.

“During the budget hearing process there is $1.2 million in this year’s budget for outfitting this facility, but my colleagues on the other side of the aisle said, ‘Well why isn’t that $1.2 million funded by that private donor?’ No one is going to give to Greenwich if we’re not going to live up to our end of the bargain.Why on earth would you put up a facility and then not put furniture and fixtures in it. It makes no sense.”

Camillo, who is seeking a third two-year term, has championed public-private partnerships to further projects in town, and said he continues to seek them.

“Before 2019 Greenwich wasn’t totally accepting of them. They really didn’t like names on buildings – there was a few but not many – but we’ve turned the corner now and that’s a good thing,” he said. “They give taxpayers a break and we put a naming policy in place.”

Closing Remarks

In his closing remarks, Mr. Camillo listed accomplishments in his first two terms, including a more vibrant Greenwich Avenue featuring free music concerts and outdoor dining. He noted that there were 28 vacancies on Greenwich Avenue prior to the pandemic, whereas today there is just one.

“We filled a $5 million hole with recycling and costs there,” he said, a reference to the implementation of a fee at the dump. “We looked at an energy policy. We have an energy management advisory committee. We looked at environmental protection in introducing food scraps (recycling) and textile, and adding 80 acres of open space. We’ve looked at PPPs to get things over the goal line.”

“All high functioning and performing successful businesses and sports teams and government entities never rest on their laurels. They continue to look forward. We will look forward to existing buildings that are under-utilized and work on that.  Parking – we’re continuing that and will be announcing something on that.”

Ms Erickson, who is also on the BET Budget committee, said public safety requests needed to be prioritized and funded, a reference to the Republican control tie-breaking vote that was exercised numerous times this budget season to decline funding requests.

“We have public safety needs that need to be prioritized and addressed. My experience on the BET has shown me that the police and fire chiefs have come to us with requests that have not been funded and we need to prioritize public safety.”

“I also believe that long range planning will save us money in the long run,” Erickson added. “What I’ve seen in the past four years on the BET needs to be addressed. We need a re-set.”

Also, in her closing remarks Erickson took a swipe at Camillo for not condemning the Greenwich Republicans e-blast from last weekend in response to the horrific Hamas attacks on Israel. The email, which was sent to a list that was not limited to Republicans, featured an image of Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Cori Bush, and talked about shielding Greenwich from “radical ideals of modern-day Democrats.”

“We need to send a message that that is not who we are. I’ve spoken to many, many people in town of all political persuasions,” Erickson said. “Fred mentioned the rally for Israel on Friday – I think that’s a wonderful thing and I want to support that. But it is unconscionable to me that the message that went out earlier this week from the RTC  has not been condemned by the First Selectman.”

At their LWV Greenwich debate, Democratic Selectperson Janet Stone McGuigand and Selectwoman Lauren Rabin, both running for re-election, had few disagreements. Oct 11, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Selectperson Debate – Janet Stone McGuigan (D) and Lauren Rabin (R)

Incumbents, Republican Selectwoman Lauren Rabin and Democratic Selectperson Janet Stone McGuigan had a cordial session with many areas of agreement. They ended their session with a hug.

Nevertheless Ms Stone McGuigan said voters had choices to make and the two parties had different visions and ideas.

She talked about how she had brought up concerns during her term on the Board of Selectmen including transparency and public discussion, urging seconds reads before votes. For example, she said that while FOIA allowed interviews for candidates for committees and boards to be conducted in confidence, “It would be very helpful if the community knew who was being interviewed, and for what committee.”

She urged more public forums for public participation. She said she had brought up the creation of the Fair Rent Commission. There was a full discussion and it is going through the RTM.

“We know that rents are going up,” she said. “We know if it is implemented properly, not many cases will come forward, and most of them will be resolved before they go come the commission.”

Ms Rabin said many people are interviewed for commissions and committees. “Think of it as like a job interview. Would you want to have residents know publicly the people who did not get selected by the Board of Selectmen?”

For example, she said there were 19 candidates for 7 spots.

As for the Fair Rent Commission, she said, “No one has all the ideas. That’s why we are a three member board and we all have the opportunity to bring up topics and discuss and debate them.”

She said her first priority, based on feedback from all districts and boards, continues to be traffic, unsafe driving and pedestrian safety in town.

“I want to continue to work with all the town departments that are responsible for that,” she said, adding that many great ideas came out of the Active Transportation Task Force that was assembled by the Board of Selectmen.

The next debate is among candidates for Board of Education. It takes place Thursday, October 12, 2023, 7-8:30 pm. Link to register is included in this article: League of Women Voters Greenwich Announces Fall Candidate Debates