Incumbent Democratic Mayor James Della Volpe tried to show his Republican challenger David Cassetti isn’t qualified to lead the city while Cassetti tried to show the mayor has led the city astray during a debate at the high school Thursday.
About 350 people came to the Ansonia High School auditorium to watch the two candidates in a debate organized by the Valley Indy, the Valley Gazette, and the Ansonia High School Student Council.
Click the play button to watch the full debate.
The debate format was tightly structured, with each candidate answering six questions from the Valley Indy and the Valley Gazette, one question from students, and one question from each other.
Della Volpe’s opening statement acknowledged the tax hike that hit residents in July, but put most of the blame on a state-mandated property revaluation. Della Volpe also said the city’s tax board decided to step up funding for the Ansonia school system because the district was losing more than $1 million in state and federal aid.
If the city hadn’t increased school funding, all-day kindergarten would have been scrapped, as would advanced placement classes at the high school, the mayor said.
In his opening statement, Cassetti said Ansonia has the ninth highest tax rate in the state and that the city is in “desperate need of a fresh start.”
During the debate, Della Volpe spoke off-the-cuff, sometimes going over his allotted time, while Cassetti relied heavily on answers written in advance.
Ansonia High School student council president Lou Nicoletti asked the first question of the night, asking the candidates whether they support putting the city/school budget out to vote if the net tax increase is 3 percent or greater. It’s a question that will be put to voters next month.
Cassetti said he supported the initiative. When asked if the initiative could result in less funding for the historically under-funded school district, Cassetti said he had “other ways of getting money for the school system.”
“Rest assured, you have nothing to worry about,” the challenger said.
Cassetti later said the school system should tap into its alumni network as an additional revenue stream, and that he would lobby the state for more money.
Responding to Nicoletti’s question, Della Volpe said putting the budget out to voters could result in multiple public votes, which ends up costing the city money.
He said the school district has made “tremendous strides over the last four years,” and that the tax board made the right decision last spring by giving more money to the school district than initially recommended by the Board of Aldermen.
The Valley Gazette asked Cassetti whether he would have supported giving the Ansonia School District a $1 million increase, something the tax board voted to do in May.
Cassetti was non-committal in his response.
“I’d really have to review it,” Cassetti said. “There’s other ways of getting funding. Unfunded mandates from the state, somebody needs to go to Hartford and fight for them and get that money.”
In a follow-up question, the Valley Gazette asked Cassetti for more details on school funding.
“I’ll fund education without raising taxes on the taxpayers,” Cassetti said.
Reading from a statement, he said the school district should follow the lead of college and universities, and raise money through alumni networks. He said he would create a public-private partnership between the schools and businesses as a way to get computers.
Della Volpe indicated Cassetti’s plan for education funding wasn’t realistic.
“If he doesn’t get the funds, how is going to buy computers?” Della Volpe said.
Regarding education funding, Della Volpe said Ansonia officials don’t make anyone happy at budget time. Education supporters lobby for more funding and other residents say education receives too much money.
“Education can never get enough money. It’s very important and that is why I’m a firm believer we should fund it. We should make sure, and we did, that there is going to be all-day kindergarten,” Della Volpe said.
The Valley Indy questioned Della Volpe’s supervision of city government in light of last year’s problems within the tax office, where the former tax collector gave out receipts saying certain residents had paid their car taxes when they had not.
Della Volpe said the city dealt with the issue in public and created new policies to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“The individual who gave out the slips used poor judgment on her part,” Della Volpe said, noting that the tax collector resigned. “We dealt with it in a quick and timely fashion.”
Cassetti, reading from a statement, rebutted by saying the mayor has to be accountable.
“The policy of pointing fingers must be put to an end. Excuses will not help,” Cassetti said.
Straying from his statement, the challenger also said that the former tax collector “resigned to save her pension.”
“You should have looked into it more and done what you had to do,” Cassetti said.
Cassetti also criticized Della Volpe on economic development, suggested the mayor dragged his feet in hiring a economic development director. The challenger said Della Volpe’s administration has not made expanding the tax base a priority and even allowed the city’s economic development commission to languish.
The mayor said the city decided to launch a nation-wide search to fill the position and eventually hired a “superstar” in new economic development director Peter Kelly.
Della Volpe disagreed with Cassetti on economic development, saying that developer Robert Scinto’s Fountain Lake industrial development has two potential tenants and that progress should be seen within the next two years.
Della Volpe pointed to Target, on West Main Street, as positive economic development for the city. The property was born from the ashes of the Latex Foam fire.
“I was told by a certain Republican Alderman that the Queen Mary would come up the Naugatuck before Target got in. Well, Target’s there, and so is Bob’s and Marshall’s,” Della Volpe said. “We’ve done a lot of economic development in the city.”
Cassetti indicated Della Volpe’s administration shouldn’t take credit for Target, saying it exists because of Latex Foam, the property’s former owner.
The Valley Indy asked Cassetti to react to residents worried about how he would manage the city if elected in light of the fact he was late paying taxes on his business.
Cassetti said he owns three business in the city and that he was 48 days late with his tax bill, along with a small amount from a prior year.
“I made a mistake this year and I admit it,” Cassetti said.
Della Volpe then said Cassetti still owes money to the city’s Water Pollution Control Authority.
“It’s just mind-boggling that you would run for this position and not have everything in order as you go out there,” Della Volpe said.
Cassetti said the WPCA bill was for a property he owned on Beaver Street and that the money is not owed.
“I’ve already worked it out with the WPCA,” Cassetti said. Della Volpe disagreed and said the bill comes from 10 Riverside Drive, where Cassetti’s business is located.
Question To Question
The final question round featured the candidates posing questions to each other.
It featured the only snafu of the evening, as Della Volpe thought his question to Cassetti, which had been submitted to the Valley Indy in advance, would be posed to Cassetti by the Valley Indy.
No one had a copy of Della Volpe’s intended question, so Della Volpe asked Cassetti where he stands on regionalization.
“I’m for regionalization,” Cassetti replied.
Della Volpe then mentioned how Ansonia is trying to encourage merging services with Derby Public Schools as a way to cut costs.
“We’re just too small to sustain what we have anymore,” Della Volpe said.
Cassetti asked Della Volpe why his administration did not phase in the state-mandated revaluation over five years in order to lessen the impact on residents.
“Why didn’t your administration soften the blow for taxpayers by phasing in the 2012 revaluation?” Cassetti asked.
Della Volpe said it was his understanding that phasing in the reval would have raised the mill rate more. It was discussed among public officials and the city decided not to do a phase-in. The city has been making strides in cutting costs, the mayor said, as a way to ease the burden on taxpayers.
“This is the first time I’ve heard anything about phasing in the reval from your side, David,” Della Volpe said. “I’m extremely baffled that it hasn’t come up before.”
Cassetti said Della Volpe should have talked to the Board of Aldermen about the issue, instead of “crippling” senior citizens with a mill rate increase.
Election Day is Nov. 5.