New Britain Debate Focuses On Schools, Taxes

10:46 pm, October 1, 2013

NEW BRITAIN — At a sparsely attended debate Tuesday night, Republican mayoral candidate Erin Stewart said city residents deserve a more open government and a better-managed budget.

“Because I love this city, I’m fighting for our future. I’m sick of seeing our city leaders mismanage our future — tax hikes, secrecy and division,” said the 26-year-old Stewart, who proclaimed that her youth would bring fresh ideas, a new vision and enthusiasm to city hall.

Democratic incumbent Tim O’Brien countered that his administration has made tremendous progress since inheriting a series of problems in 2011.

“A hiring freeze had left our police department understaffed, the public safety radio system was falling apart, there were crumbling roads and sidewalks, education had been flat-funded for years,” O’Brien said. “Now we’re putting new books on kids’ desks, we’re improving neighborhoods, we’re finally addressing the blighted buildings and we’ve turned tens of millions of dollars of deficit into a surplus.”

The final debate of the campaign was largely low-key, with the only fiery disagreements centered on taxes.

Both candidates were flanked by a dozen or so of their party’s council and school board candidates as they addressed a crowd of about 60 at New Britain High School’s auditorium. There was polite applause after most of their comments, no booing or catcalling, and after the first hour about a quarter of the audience had left.

Stewart challenged O’Brien’s contention that his administration didn’t raise taxes this year, when the tax rate rose to offset the grand list losses caused by revaluation. The changes resulted in lower property taxes for roughly 80 percent of homeowners, according to O’Brien, although the rest, along with businesses and all car owners, got higher bills.

“When I paid more on a car that went down in value and when I’m paying more rents because the property tax bill went up, that’s a tax increase,” Stewart said. “Believe who you want — my tax bill is right here.”

O’Brien said the GOP is distorting facts, adding Stewart knows very well that the changes were brought about by state-mandated revaluation.

“The total amount of taxes that the city has collected has stayed the same,” O’Brien added.

Stewart said O’Brien should have addressed the revaluation mandate during his eight years as a legislator. When O’Brien said Republican lawmakers voted against his property tax reform measures, Stewart replied that the General Assembly was under Democratic control at the time.

O’Brien said his administration made the hard decision to raise the school budget and authorize $4.3 million in bonds to replace textbooks that grew badly outdated during years of underfunding by the prior administration.

“Not everybody agreed we needed to do that, but I did. The city council did,” O’Brien said. “It’s not enough to just say you’re for education — everyone is for education in theory. We turned around years of underfunding. It’s important you don’t have a city hall making excuses.”

Stewart, who is finishing a term on the school board, said money wasn’t the only problem for the schools — nor the only solution. The system has made progress by hiring Superintendent Kelt Cooper to implement restructuring.

“For over a decade, it had been mismanaged,” she said. “I compare it to a kitchen — the salt was in the basement, the pepper was in the attic, the microwave was in this closet.”

This article originally appeared in the Hartford Courant.