Final faceoff: Fairfield Metro clash dominates debate
Thursday's League of Women Voters' forum for the three candidates running for Fairfield's top job -- their last debate before the Nov. 8 municipal election -- picked up steam when the subject turned to the Fairfield Metro train station.
The first selectman contenders -- Democrat and interim First Selectman Michael Tetreau, Republican Robert Bellitto Jr. and Independent Hugh Dolan -- got embroiled got embroiled in a lengthy exchange when they were asked about the project's $7.5 million in construction cost overruns.
A crowd of more than 100 people, many of them candidates for other local offices or campaign workers, attended the forum in Fairfield Ludlowe High School.
"We don't know yet what the shortfall is going to be," said Dolan, a Fairfield firefighter. But, he added, had Bellitto and Tetreau -- as member of the Board of Finance -- been doing their jobs, they would have learned about the excess contaminated soil on the site -- removal of which is a prime factor in the cost overruns -- before this summer. He said the town's 2009 consolidated financial report mentions that issue. Paul Hiller, the town's chief fiscal officer, "put it right in the report," Dolan said.
And if he is elected, Dolan vowed there would be no more money going to the project.
"Mr. Dolan never lets facts get in the way of a good argument," Bellitto responded. Bellitto is vice chairman of the Board of Finance and Tetreau was also on the board prior to taking over as first selectman in June.
"We asked specifically what the role of the Board of Finance was," he said, and got a written opinion from then-Town Attorney Richard Saxl that said then-First Selectman Kenneth Flatto had the authority to amend the Fairfield Metro agreements with the state and private developer, and that any action by the finance board was not needed. Those changes made the town responsible for any overages on the project. "We did our due diligence," Bellitto said.
Town boards recently approved bonding the additional $7.5 million to extra costs, with Bellitto casting the lone "no" finance vote on the request.
Bellitto said the cost overruns could be even higher, saying he voted against the money because Tetreau did not provide the boards with facts and a budget to back up the request. "I'm not against the train station. I think it has great potential, but not any cost and not without facts to back it up," he said.
"The Metro Center is easily the biggest problem I've had to solve in my four months," Tetreau said, and added that if Bellitto had attended any of the 16 Board of Finance and Representative Town Meeting subcommittee meetings on the $7.5 million he would be better informed. He also said the subject was discussed for four hours by the selectmen, four hours by the finance board and four hours by the RTM.
Tetreau also attacked a statement by Dolan that the town plans to give away the air rights over the station's commuter parking lot. "We're not giving away any air rights; we don't own the air rights, the state does," he said, "but we got our hook in there with the state to commit to making sure Fairfield gets taken care of" should the state make a deal with Blackrock Realty. "Let's make sure we're speaking about the facts."
He also pointed out that he was able to get the state to agree to kick in another $3 million towards the $7.5 million overruns.
"As to the $3 million Mike claims to have gotten," Bellitto said, "we don't have the contract much less the check." He added that he has a full-time job and family responsibilities that kept him from attending subcommittee meetings on the project, but that he attended or watched video of any special meeting he did not attend.
"The first thing you have to do as an elected official is show up," Tetreau said, and added that Bellitto never told the taxpayers what he would do with the train station issue after voting against the request. "Being first selectman is not about voting `no,' it's letting taxpayers know if you don't want to do this, what are you going to do."
Bellitto said he asked for a cost breakdown of the $7.5 million at the Board of Finance meeting, and while Tetreau said he would be able to provide that he did not have it available when the vote was taken. "That's my answer, that's my justification," Bellitto said. "I don't need to make a political grandstanding gesture."
The forum also included a challenge issued by Tetreau to Dolan, who claimed the town has $330 million in several different accounts that can be used to pay down the town's debt service to zero.
"Mr. Dolan can't read a financial report," Tetreau said. "There are 11 days left. I challenge Mr. Dolan to find a CPA to find that $300 million."
All three pledged to keep taxes low, with Dolan at one point saying he would cut taxes by eliminating bonding, which he compared to slavery.