Trumbull's first selectman candidates sparred over a gamut of issues at Thursday night's debate at , but it was the final question that garnered a lot of the applause.
The question had incumbent Republican Tim Herbst and Democrat Mary Beth Thornton address whether she uses negative campaign tactics and whether Herbst intimidates people.
Thornton answered first. "I don't think the two topics are related," she said, citing a January 2010 letter Herbst wrote to a PTA president in which he allegedly made threats regarding notes on the person's Facebook page. "[The] campaign mailers contain facts."
In Thornton's latest mailer she accused Herbst of losing 49.4 acres when the state redrew the border of Bridgeport and Trumbull to build the Fairchild Memorial Magnet School. Bridgeport got the school and Trumbull lost seats and fees it would have collected over the next 10 years, she said.
"If that's negative, I'm sorry that it's negative. It's a fact," she said.
Herbst questioned the timing of the threatening charge, saying the PTA president ran with Thornton and donated to her campaign. The person, who was not named, "frequently engages in cyberbullying on blogs," he said.
"Why are we finding out about [this] now two weeks before an election?" he asked. "It is easier to not talk about issues." He said Thornton has a record of raising taxes and has not dealt with the problems stemming from allegedly defective sewer work, among other things.
"It's easier to engage in a campaign about character," he said. "I've only questioned her record."
Herbst also charged Thornton with superimposing his head on someone else's body and misrepresenting him on issues in democratic mailers.
"Let's start talking about issues," he said.
Each candidate was applauded during the exchange.
The candidates also covered questions of taxes, spending, education and all-day kindergarten, moderated by retired veteran journalist and former Connecticut Post Editor James Smith. It was sponsored by the Trumbull Taxpayers Association.
Thornton's theme was delivering services for less, while Herbst defended his record of handling issues such as the magnet school, sewer defects, bonding and road paving. He said under his administration, taxes increases were lower, the town saved money, the town pension was better funded and the tax rate was stable.
Here are some of their specific answers.
- Senior Tax Relief:
- Thornton said seniors told her they couldn't afford their medications and taxes. She helped increase real estate tax relief to the state's allowable limit. She also tried to create a sliding scale program that was not enacted.
- Herbst said average annual tax increases before he came in were six percent, or about $500 a year. He said that was a major factor in his election.
- Significant Accomplishments:
- Herbst cited 1.9 percent tax increases two years in a row, while maintaining town services and funding education. He said he turned a $3 million budget deficit into a $1.6 million surplus in his first year in office.
- Thornton said the last tax increase before Herbst was 0.88 percent. She added that Herbst's budgets don't reflect bonded costs.
- Full-Day Kindergarten:
- Thornton said all-day kindergarten actually costs about $795,000. "We couldn't bring back freshman sports [without asking for more money]. We could not put para-professionals in computer labs." She asked if there was enough space and if schools would be reconfigured as a result.
- Herbst said the superintendent's report on all-day kindergarten put the final cost at $296,000, less than one percent of the district's total budget. "I would rather spend $296,000 on full-day kindergarten than $7 million on a [Trumbull High School] swimming pool," he said. (Thornton has said a pool would have cost $3 to $5 million.)
- On Herbst's Budget Cuts in His First Term:
- Herbst said he found $1 million in savings through cutting free health care for 39 employees, consolidating positions, reining in town cell phone and credit card costs and reducing the town's debt service costs. He said he took a paycut and froze his staff's salaries. "That set an example in a difficult time.
- Thornton said Herbst reduced his office costs by 22 percent by opting out of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. She added that the town never went out to bid on the swimming pool so it doesn't count as cost savings.
- Thornton said road paving should not be bonded. "It adds up," she said.
- Herbst asked why Thornton voted to bond road and tennis court resurfacing and school computers with useful lives of less than 20 years. Bonding increased 92 percent in the last six years, he said.
- "Contentious" Budget Process:
- Herbst said budget processes have been contentious all over. It's "an ability to pay crisis," he said, noting that seniors haven't had Social Security increases in two years and the Board of Education asked for a 5.38 percent increase (it was granted a 2.75 percent increase).
- Thornton asked where the republican leadership was during this time, citing the deadlock of the Board of Finance, the resignation of Chairman Mark Smith and the election of a republican apointee as his replacement. The Town Council also voted to take school board money that it later returned. "I've never seen such a contentious budget season in this town," she said.
- Thornton said she would not and cannot re-open sewer assessments in the Jog Hill Road sewer project. She added that Tighe & Bond, which is overseeing the ongoing north Nichols sewer project, is costing $1.8 million so far, more expensive than hiring new town engineers who could familiarize themselves with the system.
- Herbst said past projects approved before 2009 had insufficient oversight and that Tighe & Bond has found $1 million in savings. He also cited $2.6 million in cost overruns on past projects "from poorly constructed bids."
- Tax Increases:
- Thornton asked Herbst why he raised taxes if he felt past tax increases were too high. In her rebuttal, she said past tax increases resulted from building new schools and adding 800 students to the district. "Our town grew. Trumbull is not the same size it was 10 years ago," she said.
- Herbst said he had to cover the costs raised during past administrations, such as increased contributions to the pension fund and debt service. He said it was "better than proposing an 11.6 percent property tax increase," referring to one of former First Selectman Ray Baldwin Jr.'s tax proposals.
- The Magnet School:
- She said Trumbull lost control of the magnet school in Fairchild Memorial Park and would try to negotiate more seats for Trumbull and mend fences with Bridgeport. The state shifted boundaries to put the school in Bridgeport rather than Trumbull. She wanted to show "we do value this school." Trumbull is now left with negotiating for 20 acres of deed restricted land, she said.
- Herbst asked why no one else is being criticized, such as state Sen. Anthony Musto, and reps. T.R. Rowe and Tony Hwang, as well the governor and the other representatives and senators who approved the deal. He added that although Trumbull would have been entitled to fees from Bridgeport, which could not have lived up to its financial obligations.
- Charter Revision:
- Herbst said Charter revisions will empower the voters and that the $15 million threshold for referendums on capital projects is important. It should have been used when the renovation project was approved, he said. Voters should also be able to elect all seven members of the school board, he added.
- Thornton said Herbst asked to reopen the charter to make five changes and 150 were made. The Charter Revision Commission favored republicans with a 4-2 makeup, she added. She noted she favors the capital bonding referendum threshold. The revisions are on the Nov. 8 election ballot.
- How Should the First Selectman and Schools Chief Relate?
- Thornton said both should be "hand-in-hand, working toward the same goal." She added, "If you become contentious, things will fall apart. The superintendent and the first selectman should work together." She added that she would hire an outside party to show the district how to reduce its costs.
- Herbst said the superintendent needs to provide "the best possible education for children" while the first selectman has to balance the school district's priorities with town concerns. The district should also pursue non-education-related cost efficiencies with the town. The Board of Education should not be considered separate from the town because both are funded by taxpayers, Herbst added.
The candidates will meet again for a televised debate on Channel 17 on Nov. 1, moderated by Trumbull Patch and the Trumbull Times.