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Haddam Selectmen Candidates’ Debate: Notes

First Selectman Debate: October 27, 2015

 by Meghan Peterson

The first and only Haddam First Selectman debate was held Tuesday evening in the Haddam-Killingworth High School Auditorium. The lower half of the auditorium was packed with Haddam residents. The upper half of the auditorium held quite a few individuals as well. The debate moderator was Judith Dolphin from the League of Women Voters. Mrs. Dolphin noted to the audience that she hails from the town of Ledyard and is therefore nonpartisan with respect to Haddam’s election process. Before handing the floor to the candidates, she outlined a couple ground rules: 2 minutes for opening and closing statements; 30 minutes of “cumulative time” for each candidate.

The First Selectman candidates are: incumbent Melissa Schlag (D); challenger Lizz Milardo (R).

Lizz Milardo (R)

Lizz Milardo (R)

This piece lists some of the major themes that the candidates addressed throughout the 90-minute debate. For reasons of space, it cannot cover all of them.

Opening Statements:

Lizz Milardo won the coin toss to determine sequence of opening statements. Instead, she requested that incumbent First Selectman Melissa Schlag go first. Schlag asked that everyone stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She then thanked the debate’s hosts and people for attending. Schlag stated that she has been involved in town government since 2007 – attending every Board of Selectman meeting. Through that involvement, Schlag explained that she gained knowledge about town processes, issues, and concerns. Schlag recounted the pride she takes in the work accomplished thus far.

Lizz Milardo thanked those for attending. She introduced herself, noting her career as a Financial Planner. Milardo and her husband moved to Haddam over 25 years ago, served on the Board of Finance from 2007-2011, raised three children in town, and is a board member of the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce.

Lowering Haddam’s Tax Rate:

First Selectman Melissa Schlag stated that the town government

Melissa Schlag (D)

Melissa Schlag (D)

budget has declined in the past two years – down 3% from 6 years ago. Schlag explained how her zero-based budget approach has helped to make cost-effective decisions. Schlag added that she had pursued the strategy of B.E.S.T. = B (Budget); E (Education Cost Sharing); S (School Board); T (Treasures – the townspeople, open space, businesses). Along with other stakeholders, including RSD17 Superintendent Howard Thiery and concerned residents, Schlag asked the state to fix the ECS formula applied to Haddam. This effort brought an additional $100,000 to Haddam schools. Schlag noted that it ought be closer to $2 million in order to rectify the outmoded ECS formula. Schlag added that a lawsuit has also been brought against the state for not rectifying the ECS.

The lawsuit to which Melissa Schlag refers was filed on November 22, 2005. It was brought by an organization called the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) – in addition to 16 towns. It is unclear whether Haddam has joined the suit. First Selectman Schlag had stated that she would look into litigation as an option at a May 2014 public meeting. See this link for more information. A state Superior Court judge tossed out some of the coalition’s claims in 2007. The state Supreme Court upheld a portion of the coalition’s claims, allowing the case to proceed. A trial had been set for 2014. See this link for more information. See this link for a more recent update.

Lizz Milardo observed that the town budget has remained relatively flat. She pointed out that the school budget accounts for 76% of Haddam’s overall budget. Milardo noted that state and federal education mandates (which are primarily unfunded) impact the education budget. Lizz offered the idea of using her relationships developed through the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce to bring in long-term, sustainable economic development. She mentioned the “multiplier effect.” She used the example of bringing a medical office building to town: those office workers could purchase gasoline, coffee, lunch in Haddam – helping nurture and patronize businesses already here. Perhaps those workers would consider moving to town and purchasing one of the many homes for sale in Haddam. In response to a question from the audience, Milardo explained that she has contacts who have expressed a desire to move some Hartford Hospital or Yale Hospital services to Haddam.

A quick search of shows that Haddam has 184 listed properties for sale. Chester has 57 properties for sale. East Haddam has 195 listed properties for sale. Killingworth has 117 properties listed for sale. Searches of and may yield slightly different numbers.

Grand List:

Melissa Schlag stated that the Grand List has risen by $13 million in 2 years. She pointed out that Haddam is a growing community. To address the Grand List, Schlag would like to nurture existing businesses and had originally thought of pursuing an Industrial Park development in Tylerville. She stated that 6 acres in Tylerville were for sale. Schlag noted that 2 years have passed, and nothing has really developed with that area. Tylerville is now zoned for commercial development (as opposed to industrial development). She wants to pursue a CT Gig Network plan that would help fund a high-speed fiber network. Such a network may appeal to advanced technology businesses and encourage them to come to Haddam. Schlag is working with Haddam’s Economic Development Council (EDC) and the East Haddam EDC to conduct a market analysis on business development in town. Schlag noted the difficulty of Tylerville being designated a Brownfield Area Region (BAR). With that, however, Haddam received a BAR grant to develop a plan for what kinds of commercial entities Haddam residents would like in town.

Lizz Milardo noted the negative impact Connecticut Yankee’s departure had on the town Grand List. She added that CY still pays some taxes for keeping nuclear waste in Haddam. Milardo said that CY should pay more for doing so. Milardo explained that Haddam can become a destination for tourism and economic development. By economic development, Milardo stressed that she does not mean bringing in big-box entities like Wal-Mart. She wants Haddam to retain its charm. Milardo stressed that Haddam cannot rely on state grants, as it is unclear whether the state can provide the monies in its current budgetary condition. Milardo observed that Schlag did not register 2 businesses with the town at the time she examined the 2007 Grand List. Schlag responded that she registered a business in 2012.

Charter Revision:

Melissa Schlag gave a brief explanation of what the Town Charter is. The Charter provides rules, statutes, and laws governing Haddam. Schlag would like to remedy some of the archaic language and provisions of the Town Charter. Schlag noted that the Charter was last updated in 2002. She wants to make several elected positions appointed ones, such as the Town Clerk and Tax Collector. By doing so, Schlag believes these positions will be filled by professionals. Schlag also wants to define more clearly some of the roles and duties of town officials. In addition, Schlag wants to streamline a budget timeline. Schlag noted that such changes would have to be approved by a town referendum or meeting. She may consider expanding the number of Selectman on the Board and lengthening the First Selectman 2-year term to 4 years.

Lizz Milardo stated that she would like to update portions of the Charter. She is also open to increasing the number of Selectman. She noted that there is a gray area of duties and expectations between First Selectman and Board of Finance duties. She would like to clarify that relationship. She wants to ensure there are checks and balances. She does not believe that the First Selectman should be on the Charter Revisions Committee. Milardo stated that the townspeople should be involved instead – a dynamic where everyone has input and a vote. Schlag clarified that she would be a non-voting member on the Committee. Schlag stated that she is beginning to form the Committee.

Board of Education:

Schlag commended the Board of Education for the hard work it has done in attempting to find savings. Schlag stated that she recognizes it is not easy to be on the BOE. She acknowledged Mike DiStefano and his efforts. Schlag stated that the BOE can do even more cost-cutting. She stated that closing a school could be possible, given the declining student population. Schlag explained that she would not dismantle the building; but rather, lease or rent it out.

Lizz Milardo explained that she and her husband moved to Haddam for its education. Milardo sent all of her three children to the town’s school system. Milardo noted that there should be smart decisions to make in terms of saving and cutting costs. Milardo also noted that she would help to bridge the divisions among the boards. She would work collaboratively with BOE. She noted that Schlag attended 3 BOE meetings in her 2-year term.

Open Space, Recreation:

Both candidates expressed their appreciation for the beautiful open space Haddam has. Both expressed enthusiasm for biking and walking trails – as well as a respect for keeping open space. Schlag suggested working with the Valley Railroad and implementing a bike or walking trail beyond the point in Haddam where the train cannot move farther north. Milardo stated that there are pros and cons on both sides. But she stated that there should not be freight or commuter rail going through Haddam. Schlag explained that a study recently conducted shows that it is not viable for freight or commuter rail to pass through Haddam.

Balancing First Selectman Duties and Life:

Schlag pointed to her 2 years of working days, nights, and some weekends. Schlag noted that she has been able to balance First Selectman duties well.

Lizz Milardo explained that she has decades of experience balancing family, her financial planner practice, returning to college to obtain her B.A, and serving on boards and the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce. Lizz would move the biweekly 6pm Board of Selectman meeting time to 7pm. She would also move the meeting room to a larger space. She explained that these changes would encourage more people to come to important meetings.

Milardo had several minutes of unused time to speak. Milardo asked Schlag whether she was able to balance the Haddam Bulletin duties with First Selectman duties. Schlag responded that the Haddam Bulletin is a hobby and does not take time away from First Selectman responsibilities.

The candidates then gave their closing remarks.