ESSEX — Two incumbents and two first-time candidates are on the ballot for seats on the Essex Board of Finance this November. Democrats Campbell Hudson and Mary Louise Polo are both running for reelection against first-time Republican candidates Carolyn Field and Phil Beckman. Beckman has previously run for board of finance and selectman, but this is Field’s first run at public office.
Hudson, an attorney and board member of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, is a long-time member of Essex town government. After serving one term on the Essex Board of Education, he was elected to the board of finance in 1997. He is seeking a fifth consecutive term.
Polo, a personal insurance product director at Travellers Insurance, also served one term on the board of education, and is seeking a second term on the board of finance.
“It’s a bipartisan group of committed citizens looking to do what’s right. From a finance perspective we’re looking to make sure the books are well maintained, make sure we have oversight of expenditures, watch the revenue come in and it’s just been a really pleasant experience with people who are really committed to serving the town,” Polo said. “I really do enjoy it and given the experience that I’ve had on the board of education locally, you know a lot there that you can bring in to finance.”
Over the last two years, the board of finance has had oversight over a budget which has lowered the mill rate and avoided raising taxes, Campbell and Polo said.
“I think we’ve done a good job and I would like to continue participating in that good job,” Polo said. “For me it’s the experience that I bring from having served for six years, having served six on the board of education, my business background, and just my commitment to the taxpayers. It’s a way to give back and I’m hoping to continue.”
Field, originally from Pittsburgh and a resident of Essex for two decades, supervises communications for the Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency, and has worked with public school around the state.
“I have broad experience in municipal finance from this work. I worked closely with towns and schools for years. They are not the same as a business, municipal risk is really unique. Towns and schools can’t quit the business if it gets tough. They need to know how to manage through,” Field said. “My goal is to make sure that we have a risk management perspective on the board. It’s easy to get complacent on a board when nothing goes wrong and everything runs smoothly, I want to bring my knowledge and understanding to prevent this.”
Field has sent her daughters to the Essex and Region 4 public schools and thinks the rapid decline in student population in the district is the most important issue facing the board of finance in the upcoming term.
“The enrollment in schools is declining and many costs are fixed despite that,” Field said. “That has to be managed smartly.”
Hudson also pointed to declining enrollment as a major concern in the upcoming years.
“Certainly, when my daughter was at Essex Elementary School, the school was close to 600 and now it’s knocking just about 300. As it shrinks the classes get smaller, now it’s down to about 15 students per class. Do you want to have 10 in a classroom? 12? 15? It’s not our decision to make, but it is part of our budgeting,” Hudson said. “When we did the expansion of Essex Elementary School it was based on scientific presentation that said it was going to be expanding over 650 or 700. There is always a thing, should you shut down the school? Of course, we only have one elementary school, so if we did we’d have to regionalize and that’s been tried three times and gone down each time.”
Beckman, an engineer at Electric Boat and resident of Essex since 1997, had a 24-year career in the United States Navy, where he led and budgeted for organizations and projects. He said that he is focused more on maintaining the quiet character of the town while also keeping an eye for ways to expand their tax base.
“You will hear some people say we need more commercial industry and that they want to increase their tax base. People like the quiet community, we don’t want a box store,” Beckman said. “It’s going to take some thought on how we maintain our tax base, most of them are not coming from new construction, a lot of it is coming from renovations.”
Beckman suggests looking at other sources of revenue such as potentially renting out the extra space in Essex Elementary for a before or after school program or child care.
“If we have empty classrooms at the elementary school, we need to be innovative and put an afterschool program in there,” Beckman said. “The biggest thing is looking at future opportunities that will keep Essex from going down the same road as the state.”
Beckman decided to run for board of finance because as a commuter, he feels underrepresented by the many in-town business owners who occupy many of the seats in local government.
“I look around at my contemporaries and see that they commute. This is a bedroom community. When we look at our representation we are under-represented,” Beckman said.
“I’m one of them, the silent majority out there. They just need to read a little bit online. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of press coverage down here and a small town needs that to keep government in check.”
In addition, Beckman said he feels as though the boards and commissions throughout town could benefit from new members.
“I know a lot of people on boards and commissions and I respect them and I am thankful that people stand up and run for office,” Beckman said. “But boards and commissions treat their constituents as less knowing or not having the wherewithal to figure things out. That’s wrong.”
The importance of transparency and open conversation with town residents was a theme for every candidate, especially in regard to the recent mis-management of funds by the Region 4 Board of Education.
“From time to time, I think they could do a better job of public communication. If you’re a public servant you never know what’s right. You should want to know what other people are thinking. I think if they’d just been a little communicative, the decisions may not have been different, but people would have understood,” Hudson said in regard to the Region 4 Board of Education.
The Region 4 school district is not required to present a budget to the Essex, Chester or Deep River boards of finance, and, according to Hudson and Polo, they don’t.
“We are pretty high level when it comes to the regional board,” Polo said.
Hudson explained that the chair of the board or the Essex representatives to the board will come and discuss the boards plans, directions and reasoning with the board of finance. Beckman, however, said that he believes that should change.
“I don’t want to hear that it’s not required, the board of finance needs to ask tougher questions,” Beckman said. “Our school is fabulous and I don’t want to be critical of the school board, but as an engineer in industry, when you write a procedure it doesn’t stop there. You have a peer review. It should be that way throughout government.”
Field agreed with Beckman’s sentiment, stressing that she wants to make sure the budget for Region 4 is monitored correctly.
For Polo, the fact that more and more of the town’s residents are commuters – including herself – poses its own problem outside of under-representation.
“The priority concern is the fire department and ambulance company and lack of volunteers,” Polo said. “How does this evolve over time given that times have changed and people aren’t working in town anymore.”
Whether or not to invest more money into expanding the town’s recent efforts at professionalizing previously volunteer government and services has been a frequent topic of discussion not only for the board of finance, but for the board of selectmen as well. Currently the town employs a small number full-time firefighters and ambulance drivers on weekdays, and expanding that approach remains a topic of discussion.
The election is Tuesday, November 5. If you have not yet registered to vote, you can find information here.