The local political conventions in Ansonia took on the feel of a Red Sox-Yankees game July 23, with the Republicans and Democrats nominating candidates at the same time, in the same restaurant, in two adjacent rooms separated by a thin wall.
They hooted, they hollered, they banged on the wall at Molto Bene Italian American Kitchen in a rambunctious attempt to see which side could outcheer the other.
And both sides talked taxes, but with different spins — the Republicans vowed to keep lowering them, while the Democrats argued GOP fiscal policy is putting the city on the road to ruin.
Tax Relief Or Voodoo Budgeting?
The Democrats nominated Edward Adamowski, a First Ward Alderman and assistant chief of the fire department, to run against Mayor David Cassetti, a Republican whose aggressive campaign two years ago unseated seven-term incumbent James Della Volpe.
The Democrats face an uphill battle, if the last election means anything.
Since taking the mayor’s office and the majority of seats on the Board of Aldermen, Cassetti and the Republicans have delivered two tax cuts in two years — just like they promised.
But the Democrats interviewed last week had a theme — the GOP tax cut is too good to be true because the city is not cutting taxes by cutting spending.
They said the Republicans are spending more, while draining reserve funds for tax cuts.
The tax cuts were politically motivated, putting votes in front of finances, said Adamowski and longtime Democrat Bart Flaherty.
“It’s the old voodoo budget,” Flaherty said. “You cannot sustain a budget like that.”
Adamowski said his mission is to properly explain the tax cuts.
“They lowered taxes but they never said how much they are going to increase spending,” he said. “They’re a million and a half dollars more than they were under the Dell administration. They never cut spending.”
Cassetti said Adamowski’s arguments don’t hold weight — because Adamowski, after complaining, voted “yes” for the city’s most recent budget in front of the Board of Aldermen.
“He was against it, but then he was for it,” Cassetti said.
Tara Kolakowski, Della Volpe’s chief of staff and now the Democratic candidate for city treasurer, said a decade of Democratic rule is the only reason the Republicans were able to provide the tax cuts.
The reserves Cassetti raided were created by the Democrats, Kolakowski said.
“We were fiscally responsible,” she said. “If you look at their argument, they are basically saying we were too fiscally responsible. We put away too much money to keep the town solvent and to maintain a Triple A bond rating?”
Cassetti, though, is not apologizing for dipping into the city’s “fund balance” to provide tax relief.
While in power, city Democrats were overtaxing residents, Cassetti said. The fund balance was a “staggering” 18 percent of the total budget.
The mayor said the city can keep its fund balance in the neighborhood of 6 to 8 percent of the total budget — and still be in solid fiscal health.
Fund balances (sometimes informally called “reserves”) are examined by bond rating agencies as an indicator of economic health. Those agencies decide how much interest to charge on municipal borrowing. An extremely small fund balance is interpreted as if the town’s living paycheck to paycheck and not putting any money away. Extremely low fund balances, combined with other factors, such as constant borrowing, means higher interest payments on projects.
Fund balances — how much, how little, what’s the percentage at any given moment — are common debates in the Valley. Similar arguments have been made during election campaigns in Derby and Shelton.
In Seymour, where town officials recently won an award for financial reporting, the town set up a committee. Part of the goal — establish a permanent policy regarding the town’s fund balance. They want it in the 10 to 12 percent range — and they do not want the number to change based on which political party is in power.
Equally important — stabilizing debt. In Seymour, they’re shooting for a 6 percent debt ratio.
Spending is actually up in Ansonia government.
In the two years Cassetti has been in office, overall city spending has increased $1,308,670.
At the same time, the property tax rate has decreased 1.82 mills, from 39.34 to to 37.52.
Normally, when spending goes up, so do taxes, absent Shelton-style grand list growth that is an aberration locally.
But the past two budgets took $550,000 and $2 million, respectively, from the city’s fund balance and counted it as revenue to deliver tax relief.
Cassetti said Ansonia residents can probably expect another tax cut next year by using the fund balance. That’s because the fund balance was bloated for years, the mayor said.
“I said ‘Let’s use that for tax cuts,’ and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Cassetti said.
Article continues after document released by the city in March showing Ansonia’s fund balance since 2005.
Cassetti’s Tax Problems
Adamowski, in accepting the nomination last week, thanked his family, friends, and fellow Democrats before calling on residents to band together for the good of the city, regardless of party affiliation.
Then he brought up the fact Cassetti’s business owes thousands of dollars to the government.
Ansonia is “the only community in the State of Connecticut where the mayor hands out our tax bills but refuses to pay his own,” according to a copy of Adamowski’s prepared remarks.
“We should not have to be embarrassed that our mayor uses our own money to spend on lawyers and outlandish legal bills but cannot find the money for senior property tax relief programs to help our seniors on fixed incomes,” he said. “We should not have to wonder if our mayor is looking out for the City of Ansonia or is he using his position to solve his own financial problems.”
The mayor says Adamowski’s comments are off-base, and that he’ll soon be current on paying back taxes owed to the federal Internal Revenue Service.
The IRS filed a new lien against Cassetti’s property Monday totaling $11,331.08 for unpaid liabilities from 2012 and 2013, the third time in recent months the IRS has put liens on the company’s Riverside Drive property.
The mayor also produced receipts showing he paid off his company’s tax liabilities to the city Monday as part of the sale of the company’s properties on Riverside Drive.
“I make $57,000 a year, and every bit of that goes to my family for paying bills in my household,” Cassetti said, accusing Adamowski of “mud-slinging.”
Democrats — Adamowski and Kolakowski — questioned how much the city is paying in lawyer fees considering its lawyer, John Marini, has an office in Ansonia City Hall.
Previous corporation counsel Kevin Blake was only in city hall two days a week or so.
Budget documents from the city’s website show the city allotted the following amounts for legal spending in recent years:
- 2009-2010: $200,000
- 2010-2011: $175,300
- 2011-2012: $175,300
- 2012-2013: $173,000
- 2013-2014: $148,000
- 2014-2015: $189,500
- 2015-2016: $199,000
Marini is technically a part-time employee with a $27,439 city salary.
The city pays the law firm Berchem, Moses, and Devlin, for specific work done by Marini and its other lawyers, for which he is in turn paid by the firm.
The firm has billed the city for $157,238 in legal work in the current budget year.
But that figure would be $281,820 if the firm didn’t “credit” the city to the tune of $124,582 to stay within the city’s budget.
Of that total, Marini said he wrote off $88,260 in work, and declined a 2 percent pay raise offered to the city’s non-union employees in January.
Marini said the previous Ansonia corporation counsel was improperly receiving city health insurance as a part-time employee, at an annual cost of $20,000 to $27,000.
The city isn’t paying Marini’s health insurance.
Marini went on to rattle off a list of legal work done by him and members of his firm since Cassetti took office: the negotiation of a new police contract, writing a new anti-blight law, defending the city in a number of claims from current and former employees, negotiating economic development initiatives, re-writing the city’s personnel handbook, and handling Freedom of Information requests.
Another matter that took up his time, he said, was researching “golden handshake” agreements the city’s past administrations entered into — special retirement agreements with certain employees “without proper authorization” from the Board of Aldermen.
The Valley Indy filed a Freedom of Information request last October asking for copies of the agreements in question. After several delays, during which lawyers reviewed the documents and redacted parts of them, the city released 92 pages of agreements in February. The Valley Indy is reviewing the documents.
During his speech accepting the Republican endorsement for a second term, Cassetti repeated the local GOP mantra — less taxes.
“Lowering taxes is our key to economic growth and prosperity in the future,” Cassetti said. “We attract, retain and expand businesses by keeping the tax rate down. Economic development depends on that and cannot be achieved without it.”
Cassetti received his party’s nomination for re-election vowing to “continue the progress we have made and build on that for the future.”
His remarks are below:
Adamowski outlined three goals he would focus on if elected — “a reasonable budget, economic development and a senior tax relief program” — while saying Cassetti hasn’t done enough in his time in office on behalf of residents.
Adamowski’s prepared remarks from his nomination July 23 are below. The article continues after the document.
The parties’ official lists of candidates are below.
Board of Education
Christopher Phipps (incumbent)
Carmen Pitney Sr. (incumbent)
Board of Aldermen
Denice Hunt (incumbent)
Joseph Jeanette Jr. (incumbent)
Anthony DeLucia (incumbent)
Town and City Clerk
Elizabeth Lynch (incumbent)
Louis Macero (incumbent)
Sean Rowley (incumbent)
David Cassetti (incumbent)
Board of Education
Bill Nimons (incumbent)
Board of Aldermen
Charlie Stowe (incumbent)
Lorie Vaccaro (incumbent)
Philip Tripp (incumbent)
Richard Kaslaitis (incumbent)
Joan Radin (incumbent)
Anthony Cassetti (incumbent)
Patrick Henri (incumbent)
Matt Edo (incumbent)
David Blackwell Jr. (incumbent)
Frank DeLibero (incumbent)
Town and City Clerk
Janet Vitarius Waugh
Judy Larkin Nicolari (incumbent)
Roy Tidmarsh (incumbent)
Peter Gujski (incumbent)
Eugene Driscoll and Krystina Morgan contributed to this story.