MADISON – Two Republican candidates are calling for the town to rein in spending amid three large capital improvement projects in Madison.
“We’re on a decent course,” said Republican Jennifer Gordon, who is running against Democratic First Selectman Peggy Lyons for the town’s top seat. “However, one of the things that are a bit concerning … is the amount of spending. There are quite a few large projects going on in town.”
This includes a $61.15 million new school construction project – which is part of a larger $89.2 million Madison School Renewal Plan – the Academy Community Center project for which there’s no official price tag yet; and the Garven Point Seawall project, which is expected to cost about $1.5 million.
Gordon acknowledged the elementary school project was approved in referendum in 2022, and that she’s not looking to cancel it.
“I think that train is in motion,” she said. “It’s not a matter of stopping the project, but tightening the purse strings and sticking to the budget the voters agreed to. I think it’s our responsibility as elected officials that we’re holding true to that commitment to the taxpayers in town.”
The new elementary school has been a point of contention in recent months for Republicans, as inflation and the addition of four classrooms to meet increased student population projections have ballooned cost estimates by about $5.8 million.
The Board of Selectmen agreed in June to transfer nearly $3.5 million from the Polson Intermediate School project to the new elementary school. The board then weighed the option of transferring $2.4 million from the town’s Undesignated Fund Balance, which is currently over $20 million, to cover the shortfall for the elementary school.
Both the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance approved the transfer, but when it went to referendum, voters turned it down.
“The citizens said no … because we agreed on a certain amount and we need to make it work with that amount,” Gordon said. “I think the town’s people spoke clearly.” We were well over quorum.”
Republican John Rasimas, who is running to replace Fillmore McPherson on the Board of Finance, said he couldn’t remember the last time enough voters showed up at a town meeting to constitute a quorum for referendum.
“I think it rubbed people the wrong way,” he said. “At the  referendum, we were told this was what it was going to be, and then all of a sudden we’re putting four additional classrooms on.”
Though transferring money between projects under the same spending umbrella is legal, Rasimas said, he took issue with the move without voter approval.
“You’ve told the voter this is what it’s going to cost,” he said. “I come from the school that you’re going to build this school for this amount, if you don’t use it all, you give it back to the taxpayer.
If we truly are over and it is significant, it should go back out to referendum.”
Gordon said the town needs to hit the pause button on future capital improvement projects and think of ways to use the undesignated fund balance in a smart way for taxpayers.
“The problem is when you have so many large projects going on at once, making sure you have enough money to fund those while also still using the money that is in our undesignated fund balance responsibly,” she said. “We have about $20 million in the undesignated fund balance. Our town budget is about $25 million. That is 80 percent of our yearly operating budget. That is all taxpayer money that has been ‘held’ without a plan for it.”
A self-described Reagan Republican, Rasimas said he looks to emulate the late president, who he called a compassionate conservative.
“Things were dire in the ’70s,” he said. “Double-digit interest rates, double-digit unemployment, double-digit inflation.”
Raismas said he thinks Ronald Reagan’s approach to government with prudent spending while building a safety net for social services turned the United States around in the 1980s.
“I’ve always looked up to him on a national level,” he said.
Meanwhile, Gordon admires former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.
“He was a two-term governor in the state of Maryland and had some of the highest approval ratings,” said Gordon, who moved from Maryland to Connecticut in 2017. “I looked at him as being a really positive politician. He was able to talk to everybody and work across the aisle very well. … He believed in a strong education system, community safety; the social programs that were needed for the community, he did that while reducing taxes in the state. I think that’s exactly what we need.”
Gordon said there has been a polarization of politics, which has discouraged people in their 30s and 40s from participating in the political arena.
“It’s leading to a path where they don’t want to get involved,” she said. “They want to see people working together and bring forth ideas that are in the best interest for the whole town instead of one particular party. I think what we need to take away from that as local politicians, we need to look through the Madison lens. Is this what is right for the town, not what is right for a larger state agenda or a larger national agenda.”
Rasimas echoed Gordon’s statement.
“Not what’s right for the political party, but what’s right for the citizens of Madison,” he said.
He and Gordon both said Madison has been shortchanged by the state, and that needs to change.
“There’s no sympathy for towns like Madison,” he said. “Part of me gets why that is, but I don’t agree with it. We send so much more money into Hartford and we get very little in return. I think we really need to be treated fairly up there. Towns should not be penalized because we were successful and being prudent with our spending.”
Part of the problem, Rasimas said, is the perception of affluence in Madison, though high-earning residents raise the average individual wealth of the town.
“Our community, it’s not all the mansions and waterfront homes in Madison,” he said. “That’s a very small percentage. … It’s a lot of people making ends meet. Retired teachers, retired law enforcement. It’s not all the high-earners.”