BRISTOL – The Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce Bristol Mayoral Debate at St. Paul Catholic High School got off to an “alarming” start Thursday evening when a fire alarm was pulled for an as yet unknown reason during the candidates opening statements.
As the school building was evacuated, Bristol Fire Department responded to the scene, and after several minutes, debate spectators were allowed back into the school’s auditorium for the event to resume. The alarm was pulled after Democratic candidate Bristol Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu’s opening comments and during contending Republican candidate Jeff Caggiano’s opening statements.
Before the alarm was pulled, Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce CEO Cindy Bombard welcomed debate audience members and invited Bristol Health CEO Kurt Barwis to also share a few words. Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce Board Chair Paul Lavoie led the candidates through their questions for the evening.
“I wanted to start by just providing a quick overview of our administration’s goals over the last two years, two years we did not anticipate being the way they were due to the pandemic,” the mayor said.
Zoppo-Sassu said that a saying about resiliency resonated with her regarding Bristol’s experience in the pandemic.
“That is exactly what Bristol did over the course of the last 18 months,” she said. “In between our response to the pandemic, which I think was one of the ones that led the state in terms of vaccination clinics, testing clinics, support to our social safety net and everything else, we managed to have an aggressive economic development program as well.”
The mayor said she felt that Bristol had been well-positioned to accept businesses to Bristol.
Caggiano said he’s been an active community member of Bristol for over 20 years and businessman for over 30 years in the biotech business. Over the last six years, he helped to resurrect the Bristol Republican Town Committee. He’s been a lifelong member of St. Gregory Church. He spoke of his experience on the city’s zoning board and the Bristol Public Schools Board of Education.
“I decided to run for mayor to give residents their voice back,” said Caggiano.
He said he wanted to hold the city accountable to taxpayers and not special interest groups and emphasized the importance of Bristol voting for term limits in 2013 on its government officials and upholding them.
“I look forward to focusing on the local issues here tonight,” said Caggiano.
Candidates were asked what their definition of being fiscally responsible as the mayor of Bristol is.
Caggiano said he was a fiscal conservative and a Reagan Republican.
“As an example, we are coming out of a covid pandemic and we have money that’s coming from the federal government and the state government and we are increasing spending here in Bristol at a pretty dramatic rate,” said Caggiano. “Looking at the CAFR, which is the city annual financial report, we had $15 million increase in our current spending from the previous year in this budget.”
Caggiano said he didn’t feel increasing spending would increase business activity locally but the best way to do that was through community and economic development.
“I’m not looking to slash lots of programs and change things dramatically,” Caggiano said. “We’re really looking to make sure we’re more prudent with programs that are proven.”
Zoppo-Sassu responded that she felt the definition of being fiscally conservative was about the kind of relationship a mayor had with their department heads, who in turn had control of their budgets.
“The role of the manager is to make sure you have the right people in the right seats on the bus to do that,” she said. “I believe that Bristol has been extremely well managed and is fiscally responsible.”
Zoppo-Sassu said she felt the city had a strong board of finance which outnumbered the city council and controlled the spending measures brought before it during the budget process. She said she felt the city did minimal bonding and that it’s done for projects typically over $500,000.
“Our debt service has been going up and that is because in May of 2017, when there should have been a bond issue, there wasn't because there needed to be instead a zero tax increase on the books going into an election year,” she said. “So when you look at that $22.5 million that should have been bonded in 2017 at a time when I was nowhere near City Hall, that got pushed forward a year.”
Zoppo-Sassu displayed a chart that appeared to be associated with Caggiano’s campaign on a piece of paper during the debate and said a chart describing debt there was from the previous mayoral administration and her campaign had inherited projects that weren’t bonded correctly. She said her administration took on the debt, bonded the projects and was planning to maintain the same bond amount every year.
“I think some of the points that were made is that the debt is not a direct correlation to this administration, however, I will point out at public meetings, that I tend to go to quite often, that the promise has been made that we’re going to double our debt over the next coming years,” Caggiano said. “A 43% increase in debt is something pretty large, no matter who had it.”
He said that when you look at the debt per capita, a measure of how much debt a government has per citizen, Bristol had gone from $1,206 in 2016 to $1,620 in more recent times. Caggiano encouraged performance based budgeting with department heads and said he wasn’t sure that was currently done.
When asked what their top economic priorities were for Bristol, Zoppo-Sassu said some of her goals had shifted given covid’s appearance. Instead of just using the traditional tools of the economic development and community office through the form of abatements and incentives, it was now utilizing a tax incremental finance district and an opportunity zone in assistance with some changes from federal government programs. She said because of these programs a KindCare development was coming to Bristol on the corner of North Main Street and Route 6.
The mayor said another priority of hers was the urban renewal of the downtown area. She said her teams were looking to include partners, workers and residents into the planning of Bristol’s future. Zoppo-Sassu said the city had started a small business grant and startup fund to help beginning businesses.
Caggiano said he felt the city did well but he felt it could do some things better. He agreed downtown development was important but he also wanted to see development in the West End of town. He said he knew an ongoing state project was looking to improve the streetscape of the region but that he also hoped the $28 million coming to the city in the form of American Rescue Plan dollars would also be invested in the area.
“Just a point on downtown, we bought that parcel in 2005 and we're still waiting for these properties to break ground,” Caggiano said. “We have put in a parcel and built (Bristol Health Medical Care Center) which is a great building and that was four years ago. We need to do better.”
He said this was in part why he supported a four-year term for mayor because it may take four years to “do that.”
While supporting education, Caggiano said one of his top properties in economic development would be to support more manufacturing in Bristol and he felt that “We force kids into a bucket to go to college.” He said he would like to see more partnerships with technical education programs.
Caggiano said he felt New Britain had done a good job of attracting a technology company and that Bristol could do better to attract such businesses. He lauded city partnerships with the Chambers and local technical education programs.
Zoppo-Sassu replied that she had wondered how long it would take to be compared with New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart.
“The tale of two cities is this,” she said. “I worked in New Britain for 12 years and it's a phenomenal community, but its mill rate is 50. They bond just about everything from school books to fire apparatus and they are not on sound financial ground based on years and years of loss, especially with the pilot program. Here in Bristol, we have sold parcels five, six, seven and eight. We’ve sold parcel three and we have parcel 10 about to go under construction (in the downtown).”
She said the pandemic has delayed many projects but she felt that development activity from 2017 to current times compared to before 2017 was much better.
Nutmeg TV is anticipated to post the entirety of the debate on its YouTube channel in the near future.