Legislators discuss town’s most pressing issues at annual breakfast

Greenwich High School student Colleen Bennett addresses a “standing room only” crowd at the Greenwich United Way's Legislative Breakfast held Dec. 11 at Town Hall.

Greenwich High School student Colleen Bennett addresses a “standing room only” crowd at the Greenwich United Way’s Legislative Breakfast held Dec. 11 at Town Hall.

A wide variety of issues affecting Greenwich were discussed at an annual breakfast that helps inform local legislators on issues affecting the community.

The Greenwich United Way Community Planning Council held its annual legislative breakfast on Dec. 11 in the Town Hall Meeting Room.

Stuart Adelberg, president and CEO of United Way, said the event is an important one and praised local leaders for their involvement and interest.

“I think it speaks to this community’s interest and the fact we have local elected officials who are responsive and who care,” he said.

United Way provides about $2.5 million annually to 25 local organizations that provide assistance to the community, Mr. Adelberg said. The program funding can be for one-time grants to an organization or for ongoing programs operating over many years. Multi-year programs are reviewed each year, he added.

There are many priorities facing the community ranging from providing mental health support to helping people getting back on their feet after the recession, he said.

“As a nation, as a state and as a community we need to do more,” Mr. Adelberg said, referring to providing mental health support.

That was a topic that State Sen. L. Scott Frantz, (R-36th District) touched on.

Mr. Frantz was questioned if the state has done enough on mental health issues and school security in the aftermath of the Dec. 14, 2013, school shooting in Newtown.

“The answer is you can never do enough to address these issues,” Mr. Frantz said.

He said the state has worked to upgrade school security by providing money to schools and said it was a good step but cautioned absolute security will be difficult to achieve.

“You can spend a million dollars on each school and it will still not be perfectly secure. We always have to be realistic about that,” Mr. Frantz said.

The state created a behavioral health services task force to improve early intervention, case management services and other mental health aspects to try and detect people who may have mental health issues, Mr. Frantz said.

He said there will be more funding needed for school security and mental health issues. While he said steps are being taken he also questioned what he called violent images in movies and video games.

“We have to address our culture in a broader picture. We have to address, why are we such a violent society? Why do we love to go to these violent movies? Why does Hollywood make these movies that we go to see?” he said.

First Selectman Peter Tesei said any town charter changes on how the town is governed should go to the voters and not be decided by a small group of people.

He noted currently there is often little choice for voters in many municipal elections and pointed to the Board of Estimate and Taxation as an example. The 12-member board is divided equally between Republican and Democrats. Voters are faced with a six-member party slate and do not have an option other than the party appointed candidates.

“We’ve had the BET selected by the parties and, unless there is a primary, the 12 people who are seated. They are all qualified and well meaning people but they are not accountable to the broader public,” Mr. Tesei said.

He also noted that there rarely is a contested election for the 230-member Representative Town Meeting.

“The issue is competition breeds accountability,” Mr. Tesei said as he spoke in favor of more contested elections in town.

Fred Camillo, (R-151st District), spoke about a couple of issues that are not immediately pressing the town but ones he said he and his fellow legislators are keeping a wary eye on.

He said he is opposed to any initiatives to restore county government in the state. The state abolished county government in 1960. He said there has been some discussion at the state level about restoring county government but he pointed to New York state where there is county government and maintained there are few benefits to it.

He said many New Yorkers want to get rid of county government and cannot.

“Just about the only people who don’t want to get rid of it is somebody who maybe works for the county in New York (state),” he said.

“If you compare the quality of life in New York and the quality of life Connecticut is there that much of a difference that would warrant county government? Arguably you could say we have a better quality of life and we don’t have county government.”

Mr. Camillo said he and his fellow Greenwich legislators are united in an attempt to oppose equalizing mill rates throughout the state. Currently Greenwich has a very low mill rate (the rate of taxation levied by the town) compared to the rest of the state. It has been proposed by a Waterbury legislator but Mr. Camillo said it would be unfair to Greenwich.

State Rep. Livvy Floren, (R-149th District), was questioned about the $20 million the state has allocated for nonprofits and whether any of that money will come back to the town.

She said Greenwich’s legislators along with Mr. Tesei and his office are working with five local groups in their applications. She promised her full backing and energy for local nonprofits.

“I think that you should know that my middle initial is R and it stands for my family name which is Richardson. It also stands for relentless,” she said to laughs from the audience.

State Rep. Steve Walko, (R-150th District), said the town is in better shape to handle massive storms after the town and state underwent a number of storm events in the past few years including Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

He said the town has obtained a new police boat acquired about 18 months ago that, along with generators at Eastern Middle School and Bendheim Western Greenwich Community Center, serve as examples of the town’s preparedness.

“We also have better communication with the public utilities and the EOC (Emergency Operations Center),” he said.

Mr. Walko said he would like to see private electrical companies said that use should be made of private electrical companies to help in power restoration.

“In that regard I think we can do more to emphasize that in the future.”

Mr. Walko said new FEMA regulations that seek to minimize damage to waterfront properties but impose a cost on property owners as they meet the new standards “arguably are helping.” He added that he hoped the new regulations wouldn’t negatively affect the town.

“We hope that the regulations don’t inhibit the growth and the culture of Greenwich and at the same time help us become more weather resistant,” Mr. Walko said.

The legislators also handled questions from the audience including a number from Greenwich High School students who were present.

Nick Abbott, a senior at GHS, questioned why only Ms. Floren of the four Greenwich state house legislators voted in favor of early voting.

“What is the downside to greater access to voting that causes multiple members of the Greenwich delegation not to support,” an amendment to the state constitution?” he asked.

Mr. Camillo said the issue was a complex one and said he and many others are concerned about electoral fraud.

Mr. Camillo said “he has seen elections full of fraud” since he became a house member five years ago. He said that in the last gubernatorial election, 250 absentee ballots registered to a vacant lot were counted. Republicans have argued for changes to improve electoral security such as voter identification that Mr. Camillo said the other side has not agreed with.

He pointed to elections in the Democratic stronghold of Bridgeport as an example of why changes have to be carefully considered.

“Remember, I am not telling you anything out of school, you have seen what happens in Bridgeport all the time. Even the Democratic Mayor (of Bridgeport) Bill Finch said he lost an election one time because of fraud and it drives him crazy.”

Audience member Sarah Littman took some exception with the assertion that there have been a low sign ups for coverage under the Affordable Care Act and pointed to herself as an example. She said she doesn’t qualify for a subsidy under the act, yet said she has been able to get insurance that she said is 30% less costly than her previous policy while being more comprehensive.

Mr. Camillo said they are only dealing with the numbers they have been provided.

“They are not my calculations they are the calculations we have been given,” Mr. Camillo said. “For argument’s sake let’s say there are 17,000 signed up. If the goal is 100,000 by March 1st then they have a way to go.”

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