WATERFORD — Newly elected First Selectman Robert Brule said Wednesday in an interview with CT Examiner, that his early priorities in office will focus on responsive service for residents, housing and economic development, and new incentives to attract volunteers to the town’s fire services.
“My campaign was based on customer service and infrastructure, the things that this town needs to do continuously to be a town that people want to live in,” Brule said in a Wednesday morning interview at Waterford’s Town Hall. “There are high expectations from our residents. We have tremendous leaders and department headers, tremendous employees who take pride in their work here, but you also have to have a commitment to roads, sewers. utilities, buildings.”
Brule, a Republican, was elected in November to his first four-year term as Waterford’s chief executive. His predecessor, Daniel Steward, served in the job for 14 years before deciding not to seek another term. Brule was Steward’s running mate in 2015, when he was first elected to serve four years as a selectman.
Brule comes to the job after 30 years in the private sector with experience as an executive at companies providing services and technology for people with disabilities and brain injuries.
He also emphasizes his 20-year experience as a coach for girls soccer at Waterford High School, saying it taught him “a coaching style of management. I encourage people to do the best they can and give positive feedback and the opportunities they need to succeed.”
Waterford’s representative town meeting style of government and other elected boards, means that there are ‘big picture’ decisions on the direction of town government that others have the right to decide, Brule emphasized.
According to Brule, the first selectman’s role is to build consensus, to “bounce ideas off of [other officials], let committees go through the process, make sure everything is transparent, and from there you have an idea that goes from just an idea to fruition, and I think with that process it’s exciting. People are excited about the possibilities of what we can do in this town.”
Some of the changes that he is proposing are relatively small, like encouraging town staff to focus on customer service.
“I come from the private sector where every single thing you do has a consequence. If it’s good customer service then people will come back and your business will thrive. And if your customer service is not [good] you’re going to lose business or lose trust and lose faith from your constituents or your customers. I think it’s all about culture.”
Other challenges facing Brule in the coming years are bigger in scale, including Waterford’s handling of a $22 billion Navy submarine contract for Electric Boat, planning accessible housing for the town’s changing demographics, maintaining the tax base as brick-and-mortar retail sales drop, and supporting the town fire department as volunteerism declines nationwide.
Challenges and ideas for the coming term
Brule said that the $22 billion contract with Electric Boat “is exciting for the area, just like when Pfizer came in. Thousands of jobs were developed, and Waterford was positioned in the housing market to take on families.”
Brule said that young families will be attracted to the town’s highly-rated school system and recently renovated school buildings. At the same time, he acknowledged that it was important for the town to continue working to ensure Waterford’s housing stock is accessible young professionals and families.
Brule said he supports “workforce housing” — a more accurate term in his opinion than “affordable housing” — when it’s developed responsibly and in areas where it fits the surrounding neighborhoods.
“These young professionals coming in, they need to be able to afford a place to live too … If we give ourselves an opportunity as a town to bring in more families and young professionals then we’re giving ourselves an opportunity to expand the tax base, because people drive the economy. If we have more people in our town paying taxes it offsets the loss of taxes from retail,” he said, noting that Crystal Mall and Waterford’s big box stores have suffered from the rise of online shopping.
Brule suggested that the town consider empty storefronts, left by the decline of retail, for opportunities to develop housing, restaurants, coffee shops, and places for the public to gather.
Town Planning Director Abby Piersall is working to identify the five empty storefronts in town that would be best suited for redevelopment, Brule said, so that the town can seek assistance from the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region (seCTer), a nonprofit providing services to support economic development.
Brule said that many of the critical decisions for the town on development and affordable housing will be decided by the Planning and Zoning Commission rather than by the first selectman.
“They’re their own entity separate from my jurisdiction. We have to give them some space to do their work and we have to make sure that there’s a separation of responsibilities, and I’m going to respect that,” Brule said. Once the commission has completed its work, he said he will be able to “assess where we’re at and lend my support, and where my opinion is on certain things, and go from there.”
The first selectman does have oversight over staffing, however, and Brule noted that during the campaign some people had called for creating a new economic development coordinator position — an idea that Brule said he didn’t support. He did however propose taking Piersall’s responsibilities for building maintenance, and growing what has been a part-time position into a new full-time position .
“I didn’t want to create a new position so we took an existing position and tweaked it,” Brule said. “I think that’s what’s best for the taxpayer and will allow Abby [Piersall] to do more of what she does really well, and that’s develop our community economically and responsibly.”
Brule said part of his platform has been to provide a “main street” area for residents, likely around the Civic Triangle and Historic Jordan Green, creating a place where families can go and feel like they’re at home, when the main thoroughfare through town is the Boston Post Road.
Brule said that this could be done with relatively modest investments, including walking paths around the duck pond, concerts on a gazebo, food truck carnivals, or a green space for the town’s farmers market.
These are “things that people are looking to do as a family that doesn’t cost a lot of money,” Brule said, “but what it costs is time and imagination… people saying you can do this or you can’t do this. This is expensive to do or it’s not expensive and it’s cost effective. That’s just part of customer service. Then with that economic development idea we can get Main Street grants and can we develop Boston Post Road as a Main Street.”
Brule said he’s been inspired by a grassroots project by a few town residents who contacted Brule and the local historical society in recent weeks to bring holiday lights and decorations to Jordan Green with donations by the Rotary Club of Waterford.
“You can look at it at night and know that this is a beautiful New England town,” Brule said. “I think it’s that connection of newness to the office, not saying no, and instead saying, ‘Yeah I think that’s a great idea. Let’s see where it goes.’ And within three weeks of being in office, that idea just played itself out, and we’re getting a lot of compliments on that.”
Fire safety and volunteers
Brule said that another of his early priorities will be to offer new incentives to volunteers for the town’s five fire departments.
Brule said he’s considering some kind of stipend for volunteers. Recently he broached the idea with firefighters and other officials in an effort to hammer out the basic idea and to solicit other potential avenues for offering incentives and support to volunteers.
The next step, he said, would be to create an ad hoc committee to craft a detailed recommendation that would then go to the representative town meeting.
“It’s a priority,” Brule said. “It’s something we need to do for our volunteers to encourage them to stay, to encourage them to participate and be a volunteer firefighter, to cover shifts that we’re looking to have covered. And this is no different from any community. They’re all going through the same thing.”
Brule attributed the lack of volunteers to people working two jobs or long hours and the fact that training as a firefighter is an intensive process that usually requires taking time off from work.
“We’re trying to do things where we can have training in our town that can accommodate more volunteers on their time,” Brule said. “And we’re trying to look at deadlines so that we can extend things for them to be able to do the things that are necessary.”
“Change, I think, is a good thing”
In the coming months, Brule will be tasked with delivering a budget recommendation for fiscal year 2020-21. He said that he had already received departmental budget requests, after requesting them a week early to allow the town’s outgoing finance director, Kevin McNabola, time to review them.
“I know it was a stress on them to ask them to get their budgets in a week earlier and I really appreciate that,” he said.
This year’s budget is somewhat simplified because there aren’t any significant employee contract negotiations pending, he said. But Brule said he’s reviewing capital projects for feasibility and looking to “tighten the budget belt.”
In the long term, he said, the town will need to imagine budgeting for a “worst case scenario” if and when Millstone Nuclear Power Station — the town’s largest taxpayer by far — were to go offline when its contract with the state expires.
“It’ll be nice to be able to have a more thorough look at the future, where everything is leaning towards building up our economy with housing and smaller economic development, to tighten the belts in terms of spending. I think most communities would tell you they don’t have a money problem they have a spending problem. We’re no different, and we need to look at all those things.”
On the whole, Brule said that his first few weeks in office have been exciting.
“There’s a great energy now because change, I think, is a good thing,” Brule said. “Dan [Steward] and I were having that conversation and he said ‘I think you’re going to do really well, because you’re different from me.’ I think that was honest. It doesn’t mean it’s better or worse, it just means it’s different.”