Legislators talk the issues over coffee with constituents

State Sen. L. Scott Frantz talked over the issues with Greenwich residents at the coffee hour with, from his left, state Reps. Stephen Walko, Fred Camillo and Livvy Floren

State Sen. L. Scott Frantz talked over the issues with Greenwich residents at the coffee hour with, from his left, state Reps. Stephen Walko, Fred Camillo and Livvy Floren

Greenwich residents again brought their questions and concerns directly to legislators to talk about them over a cup of coffee.

Issues surrounding the environment seemed to be on the minds of the people as State Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th) and State Reps. Livvy Floren (R-149th), Stephen Walko (R-150th) and Fred Camillo (R-151st) held a “coffee hour” with residents at the Glory Days Diner on West Putnam Avenue on Sept. 29. This was the second of what is expected to continue to be a regular event with Greenwich’s legislative delegation as they listened to residents and attempted to answer their questions.

Attendance shot up for the Sept. 29 event. When the first coffee hour was held in July, only a little more than a dozen people were there but there were more than 30 people, including some people who would very much love to be involved with future coffee hours. Democrats Marc Abrams, who is challenging Ms. Floren in the 149th district, and Jill Oberlander, who is looking to replace Mr. Walko in the 150th district, were both there. Mr. Walko is not running for a second term and Michael Bocchino, the Republican candidate running for the open seat, was also in attendance.

Environmental issues

Ms. Oberlander even had the chance to ask a question as she wondered what steps the state was going to do with regard to climate change. While her exact question was not addressed, the topic did turn to the environment as a whole. Mr. Walko said that the assembly had looked at whether to accept waste water from fracking and whether it should even be allowed to be transported through Connecticut and it had yet to be decided

“The General Assembly is looking at all aspects of the environment,” Mr. Walko said. “I would say that for the most part we have looked at Long Island Sound more than any other area and how we treat the Sound and how pollutants there affect our environment. Certainly that’s important for the shoreline but also for all of Greenwich…We want to make sure the environment is taken care of. Legislators are ranked by an organization relative to their environmental friendly bills and almost every bill that comes forward on interstate commerce also affects the environment in some form or fashion.”

Town resident Sabine Schoenberg said that Greenwich continues to have a “horrendous” problem with drainage and the town’s Department of Public Works is waiting for the state to take action with new requirements. Mr. Frantz said this is a component of the state’s Safe Water Act and Connecticut has to have a plan to allow municipalities like Greenwich to comply with the law. He said this would be handled on a more regional level and it was being worked on as Greenwich and other municipalities feel this places too much of a burden on their budgets.

“This will be an unfunded mandate,” Ms. Floren said as she and her colleagues admitted there was a lot of work still left to be done. Ms. Floren touched on several other topics of concern during the discussion such as the delegation being completely opposed to the proposed Connecticut Light & Power rate hike and for any attempt to institute border tolls in Connecticut, something that would impact Greenwich directly and that Mr. Frantz vowed the delegation would fight to the point of “laying on the tracks” to stop them.

There was also discussion of the continued practice of zone pricing for gasoline which sees people in Fairfield County being charged far higher prices than elsewhere in the state. Mr. Walko said he believed the practice was unconstitutional and couldn’t understand how it was justified in Hartford. Mr. Camillo said that efforts have been made to change that but it met with resistance.

“Legislators from other parts of the state will come up to us privately and say, you’re right it’s unfair it’s terrible, but they’re afraid if they’re on record with a vote to undo this then they’ll get blamed when prices are raised in their part of the state to even it out,” Mr. Camillo said.

Economic concerns

With the governor’s race leading the way on the Election Day ballot, it was no surprise that the economy was also a part of the discussion. Mr. Walko said that more had to be done to bring down the state’s long term debt because otherwise it would continually increase, forcing the state to spend more on interest. Mr. Walko advocated reducing spending to free up money to pay down that debt and Mr. Frantz was quick to agree.

“This is a huge problem that the state faces and really nothing else matters if we don’t get this right,” Mr. Frantz said. “It could be so catastrophic that we could end up looking a lot like Detroit going insolvent. This is something we all feel very passionate about in the delegation… The tax base cannot support this kind of growth and if government continues to grow at that cost it crowds out all these other programs which we feel are important like the promises made to our teachers and state employees who have retired. The money isn’t showing up for these. The pension fund is really 30% funded and there’s no way they will be able to catch up mathematically to where they need to be. The teachers’ fund is really in worse shape. We need to get our act together fiscally before we can start funding these all-important items.”

When pressed by town resident Arline Lomazzo, Mr. Frantz said that he would tell every state agency they were going to have a budget at 7% less than it is right now for the coming fiscal year and that it would be 5% less than that in the next fiscal year. At the same time, Mr. Frantz said he would make sure these agencies were told that no one in Connecticut was allowed to feel the difference in terms of what services were being offered.

“It can be done,” Mr. Frantz said. “There’s a lot of waste and a lot of fraud in all levels of government. With that alone we’re probably talking 10 to 15% of a budget. You can do that and start off on a better trajectory with smaller growth in state government.”

Indian Point worries

For Demosthenes Kostas, the coffee was the chance for him to get an update on an issue he is passionate about, the closing of the Indian Point nuclear power plant nearby in New York. Dr. Kostas said he feared that an incident there could rival the Fukushima disaster in Japan, where a nuclear reactor was damaged in an earthquake, and that Greenwich would be left vulnerable. He had first pressed the legislators to do something at the July coffee and at this event he sought a progress report.

“We are sitting on a time bomb there,” Dr. Kostas said, noting that the plant was on a fault line. “It’s a very pressing matter. It could go any time and the risk is too high for us to ignore.”

Mr. Frantz agreed that this was a “real valid concern” and said that he believed there “a decent chance” that Indian Point would be shut down by New York State officials. Mr. Frantz said the idea has been on the drawing board there for more than a decade and that while a decision like that takes time, he suggested it would inevitably be shut down as the plant becomes obsolete. Given how close Greenwich is to the plant, a little over 23 miles, and the possibility that the town could be downwind of a potential issue, Mr. Frantz agreed this had to be a concern to everyone.

“What can we as a state do? We can put a little bit of pressure on them,” Mr. Frantz said. “I don’t know how much overall pressure we can put on them but we can certainly raise the awareness of citizens in our state as well as across the party.”

Ms. Floren said hearings had been held on the issue and that with so many people concerned and involved in this, “I think you’ll see some action.”

GMO labeling

Dr. Kostas also asked what was being done about labeling genetically modified organisms (GM0) in food products in the state

“It should be labeled so we know what we’re eating,” Dr. Kostas said. “Somebody should have a choice about whether they want to buy GMO or no GMO just like today we can buy organic or non-organic.”

This is an issue that Mr. Camillo, in particular, has been working on in his five years in office and he said he believed that kind of labeling was coming, hopefully to all 50 states soon. Connecticut had been the first state to push this forward and Mr. Camillo had worked on the legislation. He said that Mr. Malloy and others had been concerned about Connecticut going too far on its own on this topic, due to worries over how it would affect interstate commerce if Connecticut had requirements neighboring states did not, but that there was progress being made to reaching the four-state trigger for the labeling.

“We really need New York because of their population,” Mr. Camillo said. “Once that kicks in and the criteria are met this will take effect in Connecticut. You’re right, I think 52 or 54 countries have banned them completely. We’re not saying that. We’re just saying to give the people to look at the label and make their own choice. It’s like going to the store and getting regular Coke or Diet Coke. You look at the label and we want the people to decide.”

Ms. Floren added, “That’s what’s going to do it because consumers are going to demand it.”

On taxes, Ms. Floren, a member of the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, had some good news for people looking for reform as she announced that a new tax review panel had been convened.

“Our tax system as a whole and that includes everything from personal income taxes to property taxes to excise taxes has not been reviewed since 1991 when the income tax was first imposed,” Ms. Floren said. “We have asked for a total review for the entire system and convened a panel of 15 people, tax lawyers, CPAs, economists and business and finance people. They are going to be reviewing every single part of our tax code and they will be reporting to our committee and we can see if we can get something done.”

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