Debate: Blake and Smith discuss economic development, housing and more
In a polite and respectful, issue-focused debate on Sept. 22 at First United Church of Christ, Democratic Mayor Benjamin Blake and Republican challenger Paula Smith shared their views on a range of topics, including taxes, economic development, affordable housing, and Silver Sands State Park. The debate was attended by about 120 people, many of whom were there to support one of the two candidates, both of whom touted their Milford roots.
The debate lasted slightly more than an hour, and was hosted by the Plymouth Men’s Club and moderated by Art Stowe. Each candidate gave a five-minute opening and a five-minute closing speech. Audience members submitted written questions, which Stowe read. Each candidate had two minutes to answer and then one minute to provide a follow-up response after the other person had spoken.
In her opening remarks, Smith said that she has worked for 30 years in business in the area of finance and operations. She has volunteered for the past 15 years at the Milford Oyster Festival, volunteers at the Milford Boys and Girls Club, and is the treasurer at Wildemere Beach Congregational Church. She served on the Board of Finance and completed two terms on the Board of Aldermen.
Blake said his past four years as mayor have involved facing challenges and tragedies, but also had many positives. He said the city has also secured millions in grant money for infrastructure and open space properties, has attracted hundreds of new businesses, has supported education, has expanded and improved senior citizen tax relief, and passed four “very lean” budgets, and has improved energy efficiency in city buildings.
Silver Sands State Park
The two candidates shared similar concerns regarding the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s (DEEP) plans to create a bathhouse and related amenities at Silver Sand State Park, and erect a booth to collect a parking fee.
Smith said she grew up in the Myrtle Beach area and saw her family displaced by the redevelopment that occurred. She said she wants the DEEP to work with the neighbors, saying the park changes would result in “more people crowding our neighborhoods” on East Broadway, Myrtle Beach, and Walnut Beach. She said Milford has to “seriously consider” resident-only parking near the beach.
“If it were my choice, I would love to have it be a city park,” said Smith, who said she does not like the idea of permanent structures.
Blake said the state plans for a “huge toll booth” at the park entrance charging fees of up to $22 plus tax for non-residents, and $13 plus tax for residents would result in a “huge secondary impact” on East Broadway and related side streets from people looking for free parking. He said he has advocated at the legislature, met with DEEP Commissioner Rob Klee, and will have House Speaker Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden) walk the beach to see the project impacts.
Blake said Milford is studying the parking situation at Walnut Beach, saying that the parking lot is not full, but the area streets are crowded with cars. He said that Milford’s parking fee for non-residents is only $5 as compared to Stratford’s non-resident fee of $20 and Fairfield’s non-resident fee of $50.
Responding to the question of what Milford can do to attract new businesses, Blake said 394 new businesses moved to Milford in 2014 and an average of 327 businesses came to Milford during each of his four years as mayor. He said businesses are drawn by lower taxing, saying that Milford’s mill rate is lower than surrounding towns, ranging from Bridgeport to New Haven. He said that Milford also has a strategic location between New York and Boston.
In addition, Blake said, “We need to insure that we have the best schools around.” Finally, Blake said his administration has reversed the perception that land-use permitting was an obstacle for businesses coming to Milford.
“Developers talk about how we have changed that department,” said Blake.
Smith said the only way to lower taxes is to increase commercial development, commenting, “Still far too many developers are going to Shelton and Orange.” She said in those towns businesses move through the permitting process “in record time.”
“We still have a reputation of not being business friendly,” said Smith. “We have a long way to go before we are seen as business friendly.”
Commenting on the obstacles that Eli’s Tavern has faced in getting permission for an outdoor seating area on city-owned land, Smith said that Milford is looked at as being silly.
“That publicity is damaging to the city,” said Smith. “It does not represent Milford residents fairly.”
Smith said that Milford has a beautiful downtown area with a vibrant nightlife that other towns would like to have. She said if Milford is not more business friendly, it will not attract businesses to downtown.
“I am more concerned about filling the businesses in the commercial zone,” said Smith.
Blake said that downtown is the image of Milford, which is a hub with the harbor and government buildings. He said downtown needs more parking, which he is using a $2.2 million state grant to create in the form of a parking garage with more than 300 new parking spaces. He said downtown needs a grocery store, which he is looking to bring back, saying the parking is needed for this to happen.
In response, Smith said, “I’m concerned about a parking garage on West River Street,” saying it would affect the neighbors on Darina Place. She said that parking garage should also not be put on the main street to downtown because it would affect the charm of the area.
Commenting on Smith’s remarks, Blake said the parking garage will be designed with the lower level underground, so it would not change downtown.
“We will maintain the New England charm of this town,” said Blake.
Affordable Housing Statute
Blake said he has been working with legislators to try and change the state’s affordable housing law, 8-30g, and plans to talk to the house speaker regarding the issue. He said he has people reading through Planning and Zoning Board minutes of the 1980s in an attempt to find “points” so the city would qualify for a moratorium from the law. He said the Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance “to level the playing field,” giving the P&Z and the Inland-Wetlands Agency the power to hire their own experts.
Commenting on the law, Blake said, “It has enticed builders and developers to use a state statute in a way it was never intended to disrupt and destroy the character of our neighborhoods.”
Smith opened her response by saying, “I’m glad to hear the administration is finally taking action.” She said that residents have been fighting these projects with their own money. She said the state moratorium on affordable housing “was a joke” because it allowed developers “more opportunity to get their applications together.”
Blake responded to Smith by saying, “I never heard you bring up the issue of affordable housing” when she was on the Board of Aldermen. He said “over two years ago” he empowered a team to review land-use records and hire experts.
“The city attorney’s office has put all their resources into defending land use boards to protect neighbors and the character of this town,” said Blake.
Smith said the Golf Commission wanted to do something about the property at 701 North Street, but “the city did nothing.” She said with 63 houses proposed for the property “now the administration is working with the property owner,” but said the amount of money to purchase the property is now higher.
City Budget and Taxes
Smith said Milford’s bond rating is in good shape and the city has been able to maintain that, starting with the Republican administration of Frederick Lisman and continuing through Republican mayor James Richetelli Jr. She said Milford needs to create a long-range plan looking five to 15 years in the future.
Blake said that Milford has a AA+ bond rating, which he said it did not have when Lisman was mayor and did not have during eight of the 10 years that Richetelli was mayor. Blake said he was able to maintain the rating through four years of “very responsible budgets.”
Smith said that taxes can be lowered in two ways: reducing costs or increasing revenue. She said that costs can only be streamlined so much, and the city needs to become more business friendly to attract businesses.
Blake said “the hallmark of my administration” has been streamlining costs and improving energy efficiency of city buildings, plus renegotiating contracts, including now getting paid $20 per ton for recycling. He said, “We have done a lot to entice businesses.”
Shoreline Storm Damage
Smith said state funds for shoreline protection were available in the past, but the state pulled them back to balance the budget. She said neighbors have had difficulty dealing with the DEEP and the Army Corps of Engineers to make repairs to seawalls. She suggested getting grants to address the problem.
“We need to do something to protect the shoreline,” said Smith. “There are solutions out there.”
Blake said with 17.5 miles of coastline, Milford has “a huge vulnerability” with 2,000 properties damaged by Hurricane Irene alone. Since Irene and Hurricane Sandy, Blake said, “There is nothing I have not done to bring relief to those people.” He said Milford has received $30 million in grants to repair storm damage.
I-95 Exit 33
Blake said he is taking a “wait and see” approach to the proposal to create a full interchange at Exit 33 on I-95 in Stratford. He said he asked the Department of Transportation (DOT) to do an economic study of the proposal, which it did, and also asked the DOT to conduct a public hearing in Milford.
Smith said, “Anything that is going to take traffic from the area is a bad idea.” She said that if residents are asked if they want less traffic, they will reply, “Yes,” but if the result is empty storefronts and graffiti, “I guarantee residents won’t like that.”