Countdown to Nov. 3: Tetreau, Tymniak race heads into homestretch
The battle for Fairfield’s top job is entering its last month, and while letters to the editor and lawn signs cross swords over the better candidate, the contest has become one of the more closely watched in the state.
Democrats aim to hold the first selectman’s seat that their party has occupied since 2001, while Republicans — who control nearly all of the town’s major boards and commissions — hope to parlay that advantage into victory.
The race to be decided Nov. 3 pits incumbent Democrat Michael Tetreau against Republican Chris Tymniak, a Representative Town Meeting member. While the Tymniak name is familiar locally because both of his parents served as a state representative, Chris Tymniak is a relative newcomer to the Fairfield political scene.
Tymniak, who previously has worked in the offices of several state GOP officials, is finishing his first two-year term on the RTM.
Tetreau, meanwhile, had served on the Board of Finance before being named to fill the first selectman’s spot after Ken Flatto resigned four years ago. He ran that November and won his first four-year term as the town’s chief executive. Prior to his time on the finance panel, Tetreau, 63, had served on the RTM and the Town Plan and Zoning Commission.
But Tymniak is no political neophyte. The 36-year-old recently left a job as chief administrative officer and personnel director for the city of Ansonia, a position he held for about two years. Prior to that he served as the director of Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s Bridgeport office and as a legislative manager for the state Department of Motor Vehicles. He also owned his own political consulting firm, the Capitol Edge.
Adding to the drama of the contest is that the candidates’ partisans are fairly evenly matched, at least based on the latest voter enrollment figures, with 10,423 registered Republicans and 10,024 registered Democrats in town. Unaffiliated voters, however, will likely play the key role in deciding the winner, outnumbering those in either political party at 15,127 in their ranks.
MEET THE CANDIDATES
Address: Plesko Place
Personal background: Single; graduate of Roger Ludlowe High School, Princeton University; career in real estate
Public service: First selectman for four-plus years; served on town’s Board of Finance, Representative Town Meeting and Town Plan and Zoning Commission
Top three campaign issues: Taxes, education/quality of life, and jobs and economic development
Address: Old Mill Road
Personal background: Married, father of two children; graduate of Fairfield College Preparatory School, Springfield College
Public service: chief administrator, city of Ansonia; member of Representative Town Meeting, District 9
Top three campaign issues: Economy, education, and seniors
The GE question
The recent threat by General Electric to leave its Easton Turnpike headquarters, as a result of a dispute with state officials over their tax policies, has nonetheless overshadowed the local campaign. In no small part because, with its headquarters valued at about $76.5 million, the corporate giant pays approximately $1.8 million in property taxes and many GE employees live and pay taxes in town.
Tymniak has repeatedly hammered Tetreau on the issue of GE’s statements that it is considering a move elsewhere, saying he would be more aggressive in efforts to try to convince the business to stay.
“I would be meeting with the GE relocation team asking what exactly they are looking for and how Fairfield can become a better partner,” said Tymniak, who faults Tetreau for not calling on fellow Democrat Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to veto that budget.
“That budget was the tipping point that prompted GE to make an unprecedented statement about relocating our of our town and state,” Tymniak said. “The reality is, the first selectman decided not to be involved in this entire process.”
Tynmiak said he would lobby the governor “aggressively” for a repeal of “anti-growth taxes, reducing excessive regulatory burdens, addressing the huge unfunded retirement obligations, and deteriorating infrastructure that are driving both companies and people out of our state. Fairfield residents need to know that they have a strong ally in pushing for needed changes in these and other key areas.”
Not surprisingly, Tetreau disputes Tymniak’s assessment.
When emotions were high following GE’s announcement, “I immediately jumped in to talk to both sides, both representatives from the governor’s office and from GE, to calm the emotions and open up the communications channels,” Tetreau said. And since then, the first selectman said he’s been a “key factor” in keeping communications moving forward.
“GE may eventually decide to leave town, but I have worked to help the state have their best chance at keeping them in Fairfield,” Tetreau said.
Tymniak’s comments, he said, are politicizing the issue for his self-interest and are not likely to help keep GE in Fairfield. “We should be working together to keep them in Fairfield,” Tetreau said. “My opponent has suggested an approach of yelling at the governor or issuing demands that would not help solve the situation, especially as GE has asked to keep the rhetoric in check.”
Tymniak said he would a business developer in the first selectman’s office. “Clearly, we need to do more to attract new companies to Fairfield, as well as keep the ones we currently have. I understand that several state policies hurt us, but we also need to take steps to grow our tax base faster than the town budget.”
For Tetreau, the only “real” solution is for the state to devise a plan to make Connecticut competitive for large and small companies every day. “The key to recovering this economy is more jobs,” the first selectman said. “We need more job friendly policies and programs to compete against other states. And we need them now.”
In addition to hiring a business developer, Tymniak said he would establish a business advisory panel made up of members of the community.
“Business should be telling us what challenges they see and we should be supporting them in any way we can,” Tymniak said.
”This comment leads me to believe my opponent doesn’t understand how the town of Fairfield works and also does not appear to have read our town charter,” Tetreau said. “His initiative would be redundant and a duplication of expense. “
The town already has a community and economic development director, Tetreau said, who is “doing a superb job.” According to Tetreau, the town has a low unemployment rate and a high commercial occupancy rate, one of the highest in Fairfield County. An economic strategic plan is being developed by the Economic Development Commission, he said.
Penfield Pavilion not only is an eyesore, not to mention a sore point, for many residents. The shoreline pavilion remains shuttered since it was undermined by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Efforts to repair and reopen the pavilion have moved slowly, and the building committee is now leaning toward its original plan in order to bring the project in under the $6 million that has been budgeted. This means it is likely the pavilion could be out of commission for another season next summer.
“This building committee has done an amazing amount of work, including listening to members of our community and evaluating eleven different options,” Tetreau said. “They really led us through a community decision with many different opinions — one of the most difficult tasks they faced.”
He said FEMA’s complex and confusing set of reimbursement guidelines didn’t make things easier for town officials. “The objective has always been to do what is in Fairfield’s best long-term interest. This is the guideline that I have asked the building committee to follow.”
Tymniak said he would have a made a “swift decision” to rebuild the beach facility. “Communities up and down the eastern shoreline took and action and rebuilt immediately,” he said. “In contrast, our first selectman stated, ‘There is no timetable … It’s not an urgent facility, from the town standpoint.’”
According to Tymniak, Penfield Pavilion “is the last uninhabitable building in the beach area.” A drive through the neighborhoods off Fairfield Beach Road and the west end of Fairfield Beach Road, however, reveals there are still homes being elevated, repaired or completely rebuilt as a result of Sandy damage.
During a recent Penfield Building Committee meeting, Tymniak used social media to question why Tetreau was absent. “At the Penfield Building Committee. I’m puzzled as to why our First Selectman was not in attendance. It’s looking like we won’t have the Penfield Pavilion open for a fourth season. I commend the volunteers’ work, but am so very disappointed in our lack of leadership from town hall,” Tymniak posted on Facebook and also tweeted.
“He knows full well that I was at a Board of Selectman meeting being held at the same time — since he briefly attended our meeting,” Tetreau said. “He is also very naïve if he does not realize that I am communicating with Building Committee chair, Jim Bradley, and CFO, Bob Mayer, frequently to review the updates and options facing the building committee. ”
Taxes, taxes, taxes
As many candidates before him have done, Tymniak has said he will lower taxes.
“I’ve done it as a city administrator,” he said. “Many of our neighboring towns have done it, and even Hartford had a zero increase last year. It would send a message that we are open for business.”
Tymniak said many other towns have reduced spending and that has allowed them to lower taxes. “I will work tirelessly to make Fairfield a more business friendly town and actively work to recruit businesses,” he said. “I will grow the grand list rather than continue to ‘reduce the tax increases’ on our homeowners.”
Ansonia has seen decreases in its mill rate for the last two years. This year the mill rate declined 1 mill. In both years, money from surplus was used to fund the budget. This year, $2 million was taken from the “rainy day” fund which the city’s mayor had said rose to about 17 percent of its budget, the previous year it was $550,000. Most towns carry the recommended 7 to 10 percent for a rainy day fund.
He also said taxpayers should know that Tetreau does not pay property taxes, “yet asks us to bear the burden of his budgets every year.” Tetreau, who returned to town in 1995 to work in real estate, lives in a rental home.
“My recent budget went through the Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance with a Republican majority and the RTM with a Republican majority with virtually no changes,” Tetreau said. “Importantly, my opponent hasn’t suggested a single change to either of my last two budgets. Even though he did not vote on (the 2014-15) budget since he missed that budget vote, he did support and vote in favor of my budget proposal this year.”
Tetreau said the budget allowed the town to include full funding for the school system and security upgrades, full funding for the libraries, full funding for long-term liabilities, more paving, increased sidewalk maintenance, expanded senior center programs, more public works vehicles, increased support for school nurses, the Conservation Department and Finance Department.
“And rather than kick the can down the road or defer expenses to a future date, I worked closely with each of our department managers to get more done with less,” Tetreau said. “Fairfield’s tax increases have been reduced each year resulting in the lowest tax increase in 15 years.”
On the campaign trail
Tetreau said one of the reasons he enjoys campaigning is meeting people. “A campaign is all about meeting people,” he said. “One of the best parts of being first selectman is all the people you meet.”
He said the feedback he’s received has been positive and enthusiastic.
“The people really appreciate how much we have accomplished, including restoring our top AAA rating to supporting education, school security, expanding programs for seniors, restoring library funding, saving Pequot Library and the Southport Post Office, reducing costs for pensions, health care, workers compensation, building the Fairfield Metro station and cleaning up Mill River,” Tetreau said. “We have accomplished all this in one of the worst economies in our lifetime while at the same time keeping tax increases to a 15-year low.”
Democratic Town Committee Chairwoman Heather Dean said the Tetreau/Marmion campaigns are in full swing.
“Everyone is working hard to meet voters through canvassing and phone banking,” Dean said. “The response has been fantastic. The majority of voters spoken with are overall pleased with First Selectman Tetreau and Selectman Marmion's performance thus far.”
She said while the decision is ultimately up to the voters, “our reports say it will be Team Tetreau.”
Tymniak and his running mate, Laurie McArdle, a fellow RTM member — the GOP dumped incumbent Selectman Kevin Kiley — have been walking door to door since early June, he said.
“The more our team meet with residents, the more our platform of lower taxes and a more efficient and responsive government is well received across party lines — because this election is not about Republicans or Democrats,” Tymniak said. “It’s about Fairfield. And Fairfield deserves better.”
Tymniak recently received the endorsement of former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, for whom he used to work. It was one of two campaign appearances Rell is making this year — the other was for her son.
At what was billed as a “community rally,” Rell said of Tymniak, “I only go for people I respect and I know can do a good job ... I’ve seen his work and I’ve seen his work ethic.”
Republican Town Committee Chairman James Millington told the crowd at the event, “This year is going to be a major year of change to Fairfield.”