A Patch blogger named Janet recently posed a series of questions to candidates running for the office of Madison First Selectmen in the upcoming election. Seth Klaskin, one of those candidates, has accepted that challenge. Please see his responses below.
Public Responses to Questions of a Patch Blogger
By, Seth Klaskin (Candidate for First Selectman of Madison)
A few days ago a local politics blogger on The Madison Patch challenged both First Selectman candidates to answer five questions. Although I disagree with the premises underlying some of the questions, I do accept the challenge as a healthy call to discourse about important matters in town. Moreover, in my travels around town, knocking on doors and meeting neighbors, some of these issues have become topics of conversation. Here are my responses:
1. Madison has experienced budget increases and property tax increases each year. What are your specific strategies that you would implement to either attract more revenue or economize on town and education expenses over the next few years?
ANSWER #1: Taxes increase everywhere; it is not a phenomenon unique to Madison. The question rightly implies that expanding the tax base and finding efficiencies in government spending are two ways to keep the rate of tax increases to a minimum over time.
I plan to increase the tax base by working harder and more effectively at promoting and truly supporting economic development. As Director of the Commercial Recording Division for the Secretary of the State of Connecticut I work on a daily basis with the state’s economic development chiefs. Once elected, I would work closely with these colleagues to bring unprecedented resources to bear in support of filling our town’s empty storefronts and office spaces. I would work with these experts to identify and target some specific businesses that would benefit from our unique location on I-95, between NYC and Boston, while fitting into our bedroom community ambience. I have already identified economic development programs and tax incentive programs and have formulated concepts that could benefit Madison greatly. But the key is to be aggressive in our pursuit and to utilize free and low-cost state resources to attract new businesses to town. Proactively.
As for finding efficiencies, I would begin with my proven background of doing just that as a public administrator managing the state’s business and Uniform Commercial Code registries, the largest division at the Office of the Secretary of the State. In just over five years in this position, I have reduced my departmental budget by 67%, from almost $12M/year to under $4M/year. I have presided over a 25% reduction in workforce and, through identifying administrative and automated efficiencies, the division has overcome overwhelming historic backlogs, vastly improving customer service. Past performance is a key indicator of future success and I will come to the position with more successful experience in Public Administration than any First Selectman candidate in recent memory.
More specifically, as the town’s chief executive, I will employ Results Based Accountability principles and work collaboratively with department heads to identify and weed out inefficient practices and programs, while working to improve programs that must be maintained or that we prefer to maintain. Further, for all of its talk about regionalization, the current administration’s efforts in that regard appear to have fizzled. I would make a new assessment of areas where we might be able to collaborate with other towns in the region to bring shared efficiencies to our citizens.
In terms of minimizing education expenditures, the First Selectman has minimal influence over the BOE budget. Although the BOS takes a largely symbolic vote on the BOE budget, it is the Board of Finance that has authority to make refinements and to send a BOE budget to referendum. Because the First Selectman has no authority over the BOE budget, I will refrain from imposing my views on the Board of Education. I will only venture far enough to note that I am exceedingly proud of the eminently reasonable budgets that the BOE has produced over the five years of my service on that board, and I have voted in favor of each of them. Expenditures by the BOE must be viewed first as investments in our youth and our town’s vitality, secondly as investments in our property values that benefit EVERY property owner, and third, with the perspective of acknowledging the consistent top performance achieved with consistent bottom quartile per-pupil expenditures.
2. There is still no resolution on the fate of Academy School. What are your views on the property, and what are you[r] specific intentions to follow up on assessing the potential revenue (immediate and ongoing) that could be realized from a commercial/residential development on that property?
ANSWER #2: While I respect the good work of Chairman Kadamus and the Academy School Study Committee, I think the committee has been constrained by potentially artificial or arbitrary rules. I would want to take a fresh look to determine whether there are other potential resolutions that have not yet been considered. If there are, then I would work with the committee to produce alternate ideas for further study.
If the committee’s conclusions are sound and all reasonable alternatives have been considered, then we will have a choice to make: either Option A, Option B, or status quo. As a town, we might need to hold our nose and select the “least worst option,” but I have not yet given up hope for a private development resolution. That said, I would strongly favor development options that preserve the façade of the building, which has architectural and historic significance in our town.
3. School enrollment has been on the decline for several years, and there is no reversal in sight. School budgets continue to rise. What are your views on greater oversight of the school budgets to ensure that the proper steps are being taken now for the eventual closing of another school? Will you demand and publish a five year plan for the taxpayers to see?
ANSWER #3: I respectfully disagree with the premise of this question. First, as noted above, taxes rise over time. There is no town in the state that is immune to that reality, so to base the question on a presumption that there should be a perpetual zero budget increase over time is to not be fair in the asking. The Madison BOE has been quite responsible in the budgets it has put forth in recent years; especially by comparison to other districts in our District Reference Group (“DRG”).
Also as noted above, the Board of Selectmen and the First Selectman have only indirect influence over the BOE budget. Although the BOS takes a largely symbolic vote on the BOE budget, it is the Board of Finance that has authority to make refinements and to send a BOE budget to referendum. Because the First Selectman has no authority over the BOE budget, I will refrain from imposing my views on the Board of Education. I will only venture far enough to note that I am exceedingly proud of the eminently reasonable budgets that the BOE has produced over the five years of my service on that board, and I have voted in favor of each of them. Expenditures by the BOE must be viewed first as investments in our youth and our town’s vitality, secondly as investments in our property values that benefit EVERY property owner, and third, with the perspective of acknowledging the consistent top performance achieved with consistent bottom quartile per-pupil expenditures.
Due to the downturn in the economy and the real estate market beginning in 2007, we have experienced negative population growth among school-aged children. Some folks have pointed to this decrease to suggest that we ought to close another school. But one need only to look to Academy School to witness how a closed school can become an albatross around the town’s neck for a decade. Second, the decreased enrollment merely serves to return school usage to each school’s original design specifications. Recall that we installed “temporary classrooms” on both Island Avenue and Jeffrey schools. These trailer-construction additions have been maintained extremely well, but they are well beyond their life expectancies. A reduction in student enrollment and a reconfiguration of kindergarten from centralized to the neighborhood model have merely allowed us to potentially shed the trailers when they appear ready to collapse. Our student population is not getting near the level of closing another building.
Finally on this issue, I am not convinced that the projections (calling for continuing decreased enrollment) are accurate. We have already seen student enrollment of almost 150 more students than were projected for last year, placing the BOE at almost a $2M deficit right out of the gate. The efficient management of the district saved the day, but again this year we are projected to exceed our kindergarten and elementary school projections, and student enrollment is over projection in many grades. This is partly due to an uptick in leasing last year, and by our move to full day kindergarten this year. However, we need to be realistic about what sets Madison apart from other towns. Most of our housing stock consists of 3 to 4 or 5 bedroom houses, ripe for family occupation. Our town is highly desirable largely for its education system and shoreline location, among other reasons. With mortgage rates at historic lows, an improving economy and housing prices still historically low, Madison will be within reach for young families in the region. Before we take another school offline, we ought to account for the very realistic probability that our enrollment will buck the state trend over the next couple years and rise while many other districts may still be shrinking.
Superintendent Scarice has been working with the BOE Planning Committee to monitor the situation carefully and I am confident the BOE will conduct itself appropriately with regard to this issue in coming years. The key considerations should be that it is highly risky to take a school offline and there are associated carrying costs, too (taking Academy offline did not result in reduced taxes, either). Taking another school offline is not a decision to be taken lightly.
4. What are your views on regionalization with surrounding towns? What specific departments and services do you think might be candidates for regionalization?
ANSWER #4: I feel that all town departments should consider all cost-saving efficiency-drivers, including collaboration with other towns. Where regionalization could save money, we ought to reach the second-level analysis of determining whether the proposed regional effort will inappropriately rob our town of its autonomy. In other words, regionalism for the sake of regionalism, or for the pure purpose of saving money, may not always be the wisest course.
To get more specific, I think youth programming and senior programming lend themselves to regional collaboration. While as First Selectman I would not be in a position to enforce this, I would encourage the school district to continue its successful collaboration approach. As a member of the BOE over the past five years, I have witnessed the District’s leadership in this area. We have teamed with neighbors on fuel purchasing, special education out-placement transportation, adult education, transitional education and support programming for individuals with disabilities (STRIVE program), professional development, and other areas. I would encourage the District and BOE to continue to purchase goods and services from the state-sponsored purchasing pool when prudent (often the district gets a better deal through negotiation on the market than through the purchasing pool).
I would like to study with the Energy Commission whether there are ways for neighboring towns to collaborate on energy usage, and public health planning is a natural candidate for regional cooperation. Most importantly, the town should be collaborating more closely with the state, which has an amazing array of programs for towns willing to do some work to find them.
5. What is your specific strategy to ensure Madison is getting our fair share of state funding for education and other projects?
ANSWER#5: Because we have not been identified as a troubled district, it is not likely that the legislature will develop an Education Cost Sharing formula that will fund our district to the level we would prefer. As such, the key to getting “our fair share” of education funding from the state is to ensure that the Special Education Excess Cost Grant is funded to the greatest extent possible. I would travel to Hartford and meet with key legislators to plea our case on this issue. As for other funding, I would make it a point to work with our legislative delegation, with various state agencies, with the Governor and the Office of Policy and Management to put Madison back on the map. As a member of the majority party in Hartford, with friends and colleagues already in place, and with a firm understanding of the various agencies and the programs available, I will be able to tap resources to an unprecedented degree. The current administration has spent four years grousing about Hartford. In stark contrast to that approach, I will work actively to raise Madison’s profile in Hartford, which will pay dividends