EAST HADDAM — The town’s first selectman candidates tangled Tuesday on a local high school stage, debating key issues and who is best to lead East Haddam.
Democratic nominee Tanya Bourgoin quickly came out swinging against Republican incumbent Irene Hanes during her opening statement, criticizing Haines for lack of transparency and being both a first selectman and state representative in Hartford.
“I am not running for my gain or ego,” Bourgoin said. “I don’t want to be a senator. I don’t want to be a governor. I want to work in and for East Haddam because I truly love this town. I will be solely focused on East Haddam now and in the future.”
Haines, who represents the 34th House District consisting of Colchester, East Haddam and East Hampton, defended her dual role and took a more neutral stance to Bourgoin’s accusations.
“As state rep, I’ve served East Haddam in Hartford,” she said. “These two jobs have made me a better first selectman and state rep. I’m advocating for our town at every level I can. I think it’s a great idea to have your state rep and your first selectman be the same person, because all we’re doing is working for East Haddam and that’s it.”
Haines championed her achievements since being elected first selectman in 2021, including extended tax relief to the elderly and disabled, expanding police coverage and securing a $1 million grant to procure a firefighting apparatus. She also highlighted her work addressing drainage and ice issues on state roads.
The remainder of the debate, moderated by Town Clerk Debra Denette, consisted of the candidates alternating between answering questions and rebutting their opponent.
During a discussion on public engagement, Bourgoin claimed Haines didn’t listen to the public during this year’s budget talks.
“She said she would listen to the town’s people during budget meetings, but we know that didn’t happen this last round,” she said. “There has to be an atmosphere where people feel like their voice will be heard to encourage them to be involved. There has to be openness, accessibility of information and respect for the comments that are given.”
Haines said she implemented a zero-based budgeting plan two years ago, in order to keep the town fiscally responsible.
“Zero-based budgeting … is something we’ll keep working with,” she said.
She described the process as creating a budget starting with contracted line items first and then building up from zero on everything else.
“You don’t look at last year’s budget and add 10 percent,” Haines said. “We are building budgets from zero, and it’s a good fiscal way to build a budget. We’re not keeping unused portions of funds and hoping we can add to it. During the recent challenging budget season, we successfully reduced expenses by half a million dollars while maintaining all town services. We’ve also increased transparency and accountability in cash handling and check issuing and signing procedures.”
Both women expressed a desire to improve the economic development of East Haddam Village and Moodus by bringing in businesses and affordable housing for younger potential homeowners.
Bourgoin said there is little affordable housing for families looking to settle in East Haddam.
“We need to create better housing options for them,” she said. “Also make sure folks who do own their homes can afford to stay and not be overburdened by their tax bills.”
“We need jobs,” Haines said. “We need to do sustainable development so that we can increase the job market in East Haddam.”
Haines added that restoring, expanding and better utilizing already existing properties is a great idea, but the owners of the properties have to be equipped to invest in them.
“If the owner is equipped, if the owner is in a position of means to do that work, then it’s up to that owner to take care of that property and rehab it,” she said. “We can’t force them to do it. If there is somebody who doesn’t own something in town and buys it and wants to rehab it, that’s great.”
Bourgoin argued that people must be in a position of means first before properties can be rehabilitated, but the tax burden is too high.
“There’s no way they can think about rehabbing their home or business,” she said. “We need to reduce the tax burden on the residential homeowner, and that will allow them to have the means to rehab.”
Bourgoin also said she wants to see the town invest in ecotourism to draw revenue.
“Connecticut is fourth in the country in terms of per capita spending on ecotourism,” she said. “If we can tap into a small part of that, East Haddam would be doing incredibly well and it would help preserve our town’s character as well. We wouldn’t be bringing in a Walmart or Dollar General. We’d be using what we have, leveraging the assets that are already here to attract more people to town.”
Better business opportunities in the Moodus area are necessary as well, she continued.
“There has to be things to walk or bike to,” she said.
Haines said making Moodus a more attractive village and pedestrian-friendly area is a priority.
“Once you put the infrastructure in place, we will then increase business,” she said. “People are moving businesses to East Haddam. Our Redevelopment Agency is working diligently to make something happen there. We want that development to happen.”
She said progress is already being made with more doctors, dentists, restaurants, hair salons and the senior center opening there.
“Moodus is our town center,” Haines said. “We have created a better zoning. In the 1970s, they brought that strip mall in and created everything to be on one floor. We’ve changed that and now we can do two- and three-floor buildings. We can do more housing. I’m so looking forward to continuing that work.”
Bourgoin maintained that Haines lacks a long-term vision for the town and has made rash decisions during her tenure, though she did not elaborate further.
“Making uninformed and hasty decisions without transparency can only ever lead to dispute and dissension,” she said. “I will always work to find the best outcomes for the town, not settle for the easiest or the quickest. I will heed the input of the townspeople, and I will make sure the processes are open and information is accessible, and most importantly I will be dedicated to East Haddam 100 percent full-time.”