MADISON – Democratic incumbents are looking to make significant town improvements while keeping the budget in check as they seek reelection this November.
“I think things are going well in town,” First Selectwoman Peggy Lyons told CT Examiner. “We emerged from COVID in a great place. We weathered that storm really well. We came out of that as a destination for people who chose to move to Madison.”
Three Democrats and two Republicans currently sit on the Board of Selectmen, with all five seats open for the election. Republican board member Jennifer Gordon is challenging Lyons for the town’s top position.
If reelected, a major focus for Lyons going forward is to no longer delay capital improvements.
“We spent a lot more time addressing problems that had been dormant for years,” she said. “The town really put off a lot of investments for decades, and in order to make it a destination town you have to make these improvements. You can’t keep ignoring things. The longer you ignore things, the more expensive things get.”
She pointed to the $89.2 million Madison School Renewal Plan that passed in referendum in February 2022 as part of her vision, calling the school system one of the town’s crown jewels.
“It was important to upgrade those facilities, and it had been deferred for many years,” she said. “We also had a lot of other projects that had been in our capital plan for decades. Rather than pushing them off again because of budget constraints, we started to get aggressive going after grants.”
For every taxpayer dollar spent on capital improvements, Lyons said she hopes to get $2 to $3 back from the federal or state government to help fund the projects.
The Madison School Renewal Plan has garnered over $18 million in state and federal reimbursements so far. Though Lyons noted it has been a challenge keeping costs down in the current economic climate.
“A lot of things were planned and estimated and budgeted for, but the world has changed and we have to adapt to that without making sacrifices because we don’t want to keep kicking things down the road,” she said.
Part of addressing these difficulties, she added, is by finishing the town’s 10-year strategic plan. But there have been roadblocks along the way.
The Board of Selectmen has hit the brakes every time they review a new project, Lyons said, and a full stop would be a bad idea.
“Every time we’ve had to approve funding, approve a grant or approve a project … we always go through that process of deliberating on that project and deciding if we want to move forward,” she said. “ … What concerns me is, by hitting the brakes, you’re basically delaying things that have been delayed for 10 to 15 years.”
Lyons addressed the recent $5.8 million overage in estimated costs for the new elementary school project. About $3.5 million was moved from the Polson Middle School project to cover the cost, while the rest will be paid through the project’s contingency fund.
Lyons criticized the move, maintaining that the contingency fund should only be used for overage costs if necessary.
“What bidder is going to bid on a contract when there is no contingency?” she asked. “I think people are getting hung up on why can’t you move money from here? We need that project moving forward and we’re trying to find ways we have a budget and complete it on time. That’s all. I think we’ve been very transparent.”
In addition to capital improvements, Lyons and incumbent Democratic Board of Finance Chair John Picard told CT Examiner that they want to keep taxes at a reasonable level.
Currently the mill rate is 29.97.
Picard said that the finance board, composed of three Democrats and three Republicans, always tries to balance the needs of the town with that of the taxpayers.
“We work very well together,” Picard said. “We communicate well together. We don’t always agree. … We’re looking to maintain our services and our quality of life. We don’t want to see big spikes in the tax increase. We’re trying to level things out. We work well together, we communicate well, and we try to do what’s best for the taxpayers and keep the citizens of Madison as happy as possible.”
So far, taxpayers have saved about $800,000 in interest from the new school project, Picard said, with the help of grants.
“We want to make sure it’s the right thing for the town,” he said. “I’d rather see us do it right and do it right the first time than trying to put on an addition 10 years from now.”
Lyons and Picard said they also want to continue to keep taxes increases low while delivering more efficient town management.
“Under my administration, the tax rate has increased on average 1.4 percent,” Lyons said. “We’ve kept it under 2 percent and yet look at what we’re delivering. We’re delivering better town management, more efficient management.”
Ultimately, she said, the government can’t work without the support of the public.
“If the public decides they don’t want to spend the extra money on things, they vote it down,” Lyons said. “That’s the process.”
“We want to keep moving Madison forward,” Picard said. “Let’s continue working on the Capital Improvement Plan together, providing our residents the lifestyle they’re accustomed to, work with them to make sure they’re happy and Madison is a great town.”
Picard said he wants to keep an open dialogue, balance the budgets and keep taxes in check.
“There’s a lot of good here in Madison,” he said. “A great school system and great senior population.”
The Academy Community Center project, which was budgeted to be $15.9 million but is facing increased costs due to inflation, has received $8 million in grants, cutting the taxpayers’ contribution in half from initial projections, Picard noted.
“Grants help us not have to fund through tax dollars,” Lyons said.
If reelected, Lyons and Picard also want to focus on the senior tax relief program.
“The town only spends really half of what we allocate for senior tax relief,” Lyons said. “For some reason, we’re not capturing the right people. That’s a priority for the Board of Finance. The goal is to find more people for seniors to benefit.”
Picard said the Board of Finance is looking to make the process easier for seniors and hopes to institute guidelines to do so in February.
“We’ve shown we work together,” he said. “It’s about communication. We have the leadership and the commitment to move Madison forward. It’s not about having someone in place because they’re anti-something, it’s about doing what’s best for the people of Madison.”
Lyons praised the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance’s work under her and Picard’s leadership.
“Madison is a welcoming community, and that is going to be a theme that’s going to drive all our policies,” she said. “… If you look at the voting record, about 90 percent have been unanimous on both boards. If there’s a philosophical difference, it’s only a small handful and one person’s philosophy at times. There have not been a lot of blowups on issues. I think we all work well together, we respect each other. A lot of what ends up getting supported, it’s supported because everybody has been heard and they’ve been able to get their input.”