By LISA CAPOBIANCO
The auditorium of St. Paul Catholic High School was filled last Monday night for the first and only mayoral debate between Republican candidate Ken Cockayne and Democratic candidate Ellen Zoppo-Sassu.
Sponsored by the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, the debate brought out to the forefront the different leadership styles of both candidates. From the future of the former Memorial Boulevard School and downtown revitalization to the privatization of cafeteria services to city spending, the candidates addressed a variety of issues covered in five questions that were randomly chosen out of eight. They had three minutes to answer each question, and were afforded three minutes for a rebuttal.
Developing Bristol’s downtown area and the future of Memorial Boulevard School
When she served on the council in 2005, Zoppo said choosing one focus group to work on the development of the 15-acre site downtown sounded like a good plan at the time. But as the economy and other factors intervened with the project, Zoppo said that solution is no longer working, as the city is coming at a crossroads with non-profit Bristol Downtown Development Corporation.
Since the BDDC has currently decided to go out to RFP (request for proposal) again and Renaissance Downtowns is no longer the preferred developer of the site, Zoppo said it would be best for the Bristol Development Authority, along with staff from other departments, help move the project forward.
“We’ve spent over $600,000, and we’ve seen no tangible results on that parcel,” said Zoppo, who has served four non-consecutive terms on the City Council. “We need to move on.”
Cockayne noted the good work of the BDDC, which consists of members from all walks of life.
“This is going to succeed, but we have to take our time and do it right,” said Cockayne, who had previously served on the council.
Serving as the chairperson for the Memorial Boulevard Task Force, Zoppo said the school building can be a “catalyst” downtown, where it can bring arts and culture. She noted how preserving the school has resulted in the success of various productions held in its the theater, bringing different socioeconomic and demographics to see a show.
“After that show, most people will go out and look for something to do,” said Zoppo, calling the 1920s building a historic jewel. “We had spillover economic impact at the restaurants, at the bars and the lounges surrounding Memorial Boulevard.”
Cockayne said he formed the Memorial Boulevard Task Force to succeed, and it has succeeded. Although he supported the sale of the building in 2013, Cockayne has now backed preserving it, agreeing to a $400,000 expenditure for the engineering and architectural work needed to determine an actual cost of renovating the former school.
Noting the building needs a long-term tenant for self-sufficiency, Cockayne also recently hired a consultant to put Memorial Boulevard on the National Register of Historic Places.
“That building isn’t going anywhere,” said Cockayne.
Improving the climate and process to attract new businesses to Bristol
After meeting with several business owners over the past two years, Cockayne said the solution lies in streamlining the permit process. In order to achieve that goal, Cockayne said positive changes have occurred under the BDA, which now serves as a chaperone to help businesses move to Bristol—something the candidate said has worked well for the city.
Cockayne also said one thing the city is working on is streamlining operations. Currently the probate court is in the process of moving to the Bristol Senior Center on Stafford Avenue.
Cockayne said the move will not only give the court more privacy, but will also reorganize City Hall, bringing the Land Use, Building, Planning and Zoning Departments all on one floor.
“They’re all going to be on the second floor,” said Cockayne, a self-employed insurance agent. “What we’re going to do is cross-train all of the support staff…so they can cover each other with no gaps.”
Calling the business climate in Bristol “very good,” Zoppo said the BDA has done a “phenomenal job.” However, Zoppo said one improvement can be made on the BDA’s website, which is not linked to other sources for businesses, such as financing options or small business counseling and mentoring.
She also suggested having a business advocate who would lead a new business through the process, whether that involves relocation, expansion or gathering information about the permit process.
“Small businesses do need extra handholding,” said Zoppo, adding the city also should do more for small businesses with revolving funds. “They need to be able to maximize efficiency, and get… the permits that they need when they need them.”
Filling the employee gaps in Bristol manufacturers
Zoppo said the city must do a better job on capitalizing on some great resources it already has, such as increasing the number of slots available for students interested in attending Bristol Technical Education Center and bringing events that will spark an interest in manufacturing.
“There are kids who are not going to go to college, and we need to…help them create that path to be successful,” said Zoppo.
Zoppo, who has economic development work experience in New Britain, said it is great when a company comes to Bristol, but the city should help the over four dozen small machine shops that are seeing jobs shift out to other places.
“We should have some kind of roundtable where there’s a discussion about what we can do to keep all of that machine work locally, how to learn from each other,” said Zoppo, later adding that the city also focus on hiring local.
Besides continuing to be an advocate of Bristol TEC, Cockayne, said he would continue to work with workforce partners and to seek grants that could be used for employees. He also noted that over grants of over $300,000 have been distributed to attract manufacturers to Bristol.
In addition, the city has worked with current employers to help their businesses grow by starting a pilot program to help to cover costs for a building, but also for machinery, so they can invest and hire more people, said Cockayne.
“We’ve brought businesses in, and we continue to grow manufacturing in Bristol,” said Cockayne, adding that he personally meets with any prospective business in the city.
Their plan for city taxes and spending in city and school budgets
Cockayne said he has established a good working relationship with the Board of Finance chairperson and the school superintendent, which has helped adopt responsible budgets.
Through this working relationship with Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ellen Solek, Cockayne said the city has been able to combine services with the Board of Education, such as automated payroll—something that has been discussed for years.
“The relationship with Dr. Solek has allowed us to begin the conversation about duplicate services between the Board of Ed and the city,” said Cockayne.
Zoppo said it is important to realize that it its not “how much we’re paying but how we apply it,” adding that flat funding education for seven out of the last 12 years has not helped the city. Zoppo said education is critical to the quality of life.
“That’s affecting all of us, especially those of us who may be looking for a house in the next three to five years,” said Zoppo, adding that spending should be linked to priorities like Depot Square and Memorial Boulevard. “From 2005 when our tax rate was 34.21 to now, when it’s…higher at 34.61, the average homeowner has lost between $30,000 to $40,000—and some neighborhoods more— off of the value of their house.”
Zoppo concluded her response by asking Cockayne what three things he did to improve last year’s budget.
Cockayne shot back saying that the state-led Democratic party has done nothing to help solve the issue of unfunded mandates—one of the biggest burdens that the city budget faces. Cockayne said he has gone to Hartford to testify against the impact that these mandates make on Bristol, urging the state repeal them.
“It’s killing the city,” said Cockayne, adding the city gave the Board of Education an additional $5.5 million, and was not flat funded.
Privatizing cafeteria services in Bristol Public Schools
When asked whether it is appropriate for people and organizations outside the Board of Education to address the privatization of cafeteria services, Zoppo said there has been a breakdown of communication and leadership over the past two years. If mayor, Zoppo said she would have played an involved role with the Board of Education when it decided to appeal the order of the state Board of Relations last year so the district can move forward with privatizing cafeteria work.
Local 2267, Council 4, the union that represents the cafeteria workers in the district, filed a complaint with the Connecticut State Board of Labor Relations, stating the school board “violated the Municipal Employee Relations Act when it failed to ratify a certain tentative bargaining agreement.” The labor board concluded that Board of Education “failed to honor its statutory obligation to bargain in good faith.”
“We are now at over $250,000 that we spent chasing a lawsuit for 53 women’s jobs that are part of our community,” said Zoppo, adding how the cafeteria workers live in Bristol and are taxpayers. “Leadership is about making things work and spending money and prioritizing where it’s most needed.”
Although Cockayne said he did not agree with Republican board members of the Republican Party and took a stand two years ago, he allowed them to make their own decision.
“They make their own decisions and they chose to continue the path they’re on,” said Cockayne. “I’m not going to force them to make that decision.”
The mayoral debate is now posted on Nutmeg TV’s website. To watch it, visit http://nutmegtv.org/video-on-demand/single/?id=32514.