With a $900,000 surplus, and a mill rate that has fallen each of the last two years, Norm Needleman, the incumbent running for a fifth consecutive term as first selectman of Essex, says that Essex has never been better.
Matt Fleming, his challenger, says that if elected his priority will be to keep costs under control. However, unlike Needleman, Fleming does not think the town has been doing a good job of that.
“The mill rate went down, but assessments on houses went up, explain to me how that helps,” Fleming said. “He is passing things in Hartford right now that are affecting the whole community.
Fleming, is an engineer at Electric Boat and former construction business owner who moved to town four years ago.
Neeldeman said he is also prioritizing cost controls.
“The main issues are always centered around keeping costs under control and providing the best services. It’s not a political thing, it’s more of a grassroots effort,” Needleman said.
In addition to reducing the mill rate, Needleman said he has focused on making Essex more walkable – a goal he has promoted since taking office eight years ago.
“When we are done with the streetscape and connectivity grants you’ll be able to walk from Bushy Hill to the river,” Needleman said. “It used to be if you walked past the Griswold Inn toward the water on that side of the street the sidewalk would just end. If you were handicapped you’d have to turn around on a very narrow, broken sidewalk.”
The project cost $18,000 and is one of the primary reasons Fleming decided to run for office.
“A lot of money is being wasted in town, the sidewalks are a bit ridiculous,” Fleming said.
In contrast, Fleming explained that the sidewalks and roads near where he lives in Ivoryton, a village in Essex, are not well maintained in the winter time, forcing people to walk in the middle of the roads and risk being hit by a car.
“We had issues out here on the roads with trees falling down and then there were blight issues – people out of control with messy yards. I called the first selectman up and asked what can we do about this and he pretty much blew me off,” Fleming said. “They don’t snow plow the sidewalks in Ivoryton Center and he told me they don’t because the residents don’t want to pay for a piece of snow equipment and I said what happens if somebody slips and falls and gets hit by a car and he just said no, the residents wouldn’t want that.”
State involvement… opportunity or a challenge?
In addition to his position as first selectman, Needleman serves as state senator for the 33rd District which includes Essex, Deep River, Chester, Westbrook, Colchester, Portland, Haddam, East Haddam, Lyme, Clinton and part of Old Saybrook.
But Needleman said he often sees state mandates as a challenge on the local level.
“It’s always a challenge because the state tends to broad brush,” Needleman said. “I ran for state senator to be a loud voice for the small towns. Having boots on the ground as a selectman and as a business owner helps me at the state level to be more in touch with reality.”
Fleming, however, said that juggling three jobs leaves Needleman unavailable to his constituents.
“The selectman that’s in is unavailable, that’s the biggest complaint I get from all the constituents,” Fleming said. “He’s hard to get in touch with and slow at responding. He is doing one third of the work for each one of his positions. Nobody is getting full attention and it seems like Essex is getting the least attention.”
In terms of working with the state, Fleming acknowledges that Needleman’s position in Hartford is an opportunity for the town to secure state funding, but Fleming said that Essex currently receives just $200,00 to $300,000 each year out of a multimillion-dollar budget.
Regionalization and emergency services
“Essex has been a leader in regionalization,” Needleman said. In addition to its three-town regionalized school district for grades 7 through 12, Essex is part of a 10-town regional 911 emergency response service, and has a regional dog warden.
According to Needleman, Essex pays just $120,000 per year as a member town of Valley-Shore 911, while Old Saybrook and Clinton spend more than a million dollars each to operate town 911 call centers.
“I would fight tooth and nail to not be a police department town,” Needleman. “Police departments just build on themselves and grow and grow.”
Fleming, said that although he is supports regionalization, he thinks the Valley-Shore 911 call center response time is unacceptable.
“They have a very bad response time especially at night and during the week,” Fleming said. “What I’ve seen with break-ins — and we had some on this street — it took awhile for the cops to get out here.”
Over the past several years, a number of new developments under the state’s affordable housing statute 8-30g have opened or been proposed in Essex, including Essex Station Luxury Rentals, Essex Place in Centerbrook, and Spencer’s Corner, a proposed adaptive reuse development in Ivoryton. Essex is short of the state’s goal of constructing 10% affordable housing in each town.
“We have been making progress and I’m proud of that,” Needleman said.
Fleming said that these developments should not count as affordable housing.
“They charge $1800 per month. It’s not affordable for anyone that is young or needs to be subsidized to afford to live,” Fleming said. “The thing about Essex is some of the people that live here don’t want certain people living here. It’s a bad thing.”
Similarly, Needleman said he is not sure that the affordable housing developments truly accomplished what their intent was.
“I’m not sure it yielded what we wanted. A lot of them got bought up as summer homes,” Needleman said. “We have to work to provide the things that millennials and generations after millennials want in town otherwise they won’t move here.”
Fleming said if he is elected he will look into renovating the abandoned factory in Ivoryton into affordable housing that younger people might be able to live in.
“I’m a regular guy, just like most of the working class in town,” Fleming said. “As far as that goes I can relate better to the community. I am going to be more useful to the whole community than to just some people.”
Needleman said he is hopeful that he will have the opportunity to lead Essex for another two years and hopefully to yet another unanimous budget vote as six of his eight have so far been.
“I will approach my work from a point of knowledge and reasonableness and working together,” Needleman said. “I will argue that it’s my job as the first selectman to get everybody on board with my ideas.”
The election is Tuesday, November 5. If you have not yet registered to vote, you can find information here.