Oct 20, 2023
After not being acknowledged by Selectman Jeffrey Zullo, John Bongiorno moved on, shaking hands with Selectman Jodiann Tenney and, below, exchanging a hug with Tenney.
It was lively, spirited and issues-oriented, a debate that clearly showcased the differences between incumbent Litchfield selectmen Jeffrey Zullo and Jodiann Tenney and their Republican challengers, John Bongiorno and Daniel Morosani.
The debate at Litchfield Intermediate School on Wednesday drew a crowd of about 100 and set the stage for a Nov. 7 election that will see the Board of Selectmen’s Democratic majority of First Selectman Denise Raap and selectmen Jeffrey Zullo and Jodiann Tenney attempt to ward off an aggressive challenge from first selectman candidate Norman Sauer and selectmen candidates John Bongiorno and Daniel Morosani.
One of the more interesting moments of the evening came at the end of the debate when Zullo skipped the traditional handshake and pleasantries with his opponents. While Tenney exchanged handshakes and hugs with Bongiorno and Morosani, Zullo remained seated with his back to the challengers.
The slight, according to Zullo, was unintentional.
“We had a spirited debate and it went well,” Zullo said. “I was in conversation with several people after the debate and just didn’t get an opportunity to wish them well.”
Bongiorno had a different take on the aftermath.
“I am a bit disappointed, but everyone has a bad night once in a while,” Bongiorno said of Zullo. “I can understand how he was feeling.”
In a debate moderated by retired Appellate Court Judge Anne C. Dranginis, Bongiorno and Morosani took to the offensive, criticizing the Board of Selectmen’s decision in 2022 not to replace two retiring police constables, an ongoing traffic and pedestrian safety study being led by Tenney, municipal spending that is up by $1.2 million over the past four years, and lack of a full-time assessor.
Zullo and Tenney defended the board’s work, noting that all of its key decisions over the past two years, including the police issue, have been unanimous. Four consecutive tax decreases, two residents troopers who are providing stellar coverage, strides in recycling, municipal solid waste cost reduction, and lowering electrical costs through implementation of solar energy projects are proof, they said, that the board under Democratic majority is serving the best interests of the town.
Here’s a look at how the candidates addressed some of the issues:
Police coverage: According to Zullo, coverage is better than it was when the town employed two constables. Traffic tickets and citations show an increase of 130 percent in 2023, he said, proof that the system of two resident troopers is working.
“We have better coverage for the same amount of money,” Zullo said. “I believe staying with two resident troopers is the way to go.”
Bongiorno, however, said coverage is lacking. Without constables, there is not enough police presence.
“The constables were ingrained in the fabric of the community,” he said. “We no longer have that.”
The decision to not hire new constables, he said, was hasty and not well-thought out.
“I don’t think anyone considered the long-term effect beyond saving some money,” Bongiorno said of the $100,000 the town is saving by not having to outfit constables with body cameras and provide the software to store camera data. “(The two resident troopers) work their tails off, but it’s impossible to cover the entire town.”
If elected, Bongiorno said he would support revisiting the board’s decision. Morosani, meanwhile, said the police coverage issue should have been determined by voters. He too said it would be wise to revisit the decision. Tenney also said she would support taking another look.
Municipal spending: Zullo and Tenney said the board has made fiscal decisions that have been responsible and have helped produce a decrease in the tax rate of 5 percent over four years. They also cited the $1.2 million in grants received that have offset the spending increase.
Fiscal discipline will continue if the Democrats retain control of the board, Zullo said.
“The budget has gone up, but the increase has been offset by more revenue,” Tenney said. “The increase is 12 percent over the four years, but inflation during the same period is 17 percent, so we’re ahead.”
Relying on one-time grants, Morosani said, is irresponsible.
Assessor: The town has been employing a part-time assessor who works one day a week and is paid $1,000 a day. The arrangement with Assessor Chris Kelsey has been in place for a couple of years. Kelsey receives no benefits.
“He is very good at what he does,” Tenney said. “To me it’s about the quality of a person’s work and he’s highly qualified. I have full confidence in him.”
A shortage of assessors in the state, Tenney said, is the reason the town can’t hire a full-time assessor. The salary the town has budgeted for a full-time position is also not competitive and deters potential candidates.
With revaluation coming in 2023, it is imperative to hire a full-time assessor, according to Bongiorno.
“If we have to pay more money to do it, then so be it,” he said. “There has to be someone in that office more than one day a week.”
Traffic and pedestrian safety: Tenney is chairman of the traffic safety community action group that is working with the state Department of Transportation on potential solutions to traffic and pedestrian issues in the center of town.
“Things take time when you are working with the state and if you don’t understand that, you don’t understand the complexities of it all,” Tenney said in defending the deliberate pace of the process.
Morosani accused Tenney’s committee of “dithering” in its work and of not focusing on bad intersections such as Route 254 and Route 118 and Route 202 and North Shore Road.
Tenney encouraged Morosani to attend committee meetings and provide input rather the criticize its work.
Town Hall Annex: So what should the to do with the nearly 70-year-old edifice in Bantam?
According to Zullo, funding an architectural and engineering study of the building to the tune of $150,000 or more would be a wise way of determining what it would take to bring the building up to modern standards and how it could best be used. Preliminary estimates show it costing about $10 million to upgrade the building.
The town, Zullo said, supports keeping the building for its use and as such would support spending money on it.
If elected, Bongiorno said he would favor asking voters in a referendum if they would support spending $10 million on the building. The referendum, he said, would be held before money is committed to a study.
“We keep putting money into studies and then we don’t do anything with them,” Bongiorno said.
According to Zullo, money in a fund used to maintain the Town Hall Annex could be used to cover the cost of a study. There’s a bit more than $200,000 left in the fund.
“That building needs to be fixed,” Zullo said.
Volunteer recruitment and retention: Each of the candidates said they support revamping the town pension plan for volunteer first responders as a way to keep them involved. Morosani, a firefighter and emergency medical technician with the Northfield Volunteer Fire Company, heads a committee of first responders reviewing the pension plan to determine how it could be tweaked for the better.
The committee, however, is receiving no support from the Board of Selectmen, according to Morosani.
“We had a very clear verbal agreement in May, and since then we’ve heard nothing from the board,” he said. “It’s an example of the current leadership style. With new people elected, there will be more attention on this issue.”
Selectmen, Zullo said, asked Morosani’s committee to consult with the Pension Commission first before reporting back to the selectmen. Selectmen can’t make changes to the pension plan, Zullo said.