MADISON – With few disagreements between them, Democrat Peggy Lyons and Republican Jennifer Gordon addressed the town’s capital improvements and environmental concerns in a debate for the first selectman’s seat Thursday night at Polson Middle School.
Incumbent First Selectman Lyons said she would deliver promised capital improvement projects that have gone to referendum like the $89.2 million Madison School Renewal Plan and the $15.9 million Academy Community Center.
“I want to make sure the referendums are done as promised to the voters,” Lyons said to approximately 100 people in attendance, as well as the audience watching the debate’s live stream.
Lyons said both projects are expected to be completed in 2025, and part of planning for the future is sticking to the plans that have been set in place.
“We’re in the process of completing a strategic plan,” she said. “To me, that plan is reflecting what the community wants, so we need to align our budgets to that plan. Invest and protect our beaches and our schools. Those are Madison’s crown jewels and we need to continue to preserve them, invest in them and make sure to continue to support what was recently announced the number one school system in Connecticut.”
Lyons praised the School Building Committee for its work on Madison Schools Renewal Plan, particularly the $61.15 million new elementary school, which she said is on schedule.
Gordon, an incumbent selectman, said the plan will accommodate the town’s projected number of students.
“In terms of space, I think we have what we need,” she said.
Gordon emphasized the importance of communication between the FIrst Selectman and the Board of Education in planning how to use the two elementary schools that will be vacant when students move into the new elementary school in 2025.
Lyons echoed Gordon that the Board of Education needs to plan deliberately for the use of the two schools to avoid repeating the years-long vacancy of the Academy School.
Both candidates reassured voters that the Academy Community Center project is on track.
Gordon said that staying with the town projects’ anticipated budgets was key to keeping the town affordable.
“We definitely need to make good on the referendums that have passed, but part of keeping Madison affordable is making sure we keep those projects on their anticipated budgets. Controlling new spending is the best way to keep Madison affordable,” Gordon said.
She said that through the town’s capital improvement process, projects can be evaluated and needs versus wants identified.
“We need to create room in our budgets to maintain that high quality of education but also make sure we’re doing that in the most efficient and fiscally responsible way,” she said.
Gordon said that protecting the town’s beaches and walking trails are a top priority for residents, and that working with the local land trust and the Bicycle Pedestrian Committee will help move projects forward to create safer biking and pedestrian pathways through town.
Lyons said that the town has been working on creating more sidewalks.
“We are going to be going under construction in the spring with another grant that we won that will connect Woodland Road, up (Route) 79 all the way to the town green and Boston Post Road and connect to Bradley Road,” she said. “We’re trying to create a circle around town so it’s all walkable. We’ve also just completed a study connecting the Surf Club to the Town Green.”
Part of protecting the beach area, particularly the homes along the waterfront, is addressing climate change, Lyons said.
“Climate change impacts us in so many different ways,” Lyons said, adding that rising sea levels put beach communities at risk and increased severe storms cause frequent road damage.
She said the town was reducing its carbon footprint by using green technologies, including a geothermal system in the new elementary school, the town campus, the library and the Academy Community Center. She said the town has also been “progressive” with solar energy and has converted lighting in town property to LED lighting, and was looking at a transition to electric vehicles.
Gordon also emphasized the need for geothermal energy when appropriate as the town has hit roadblocks with cost.
She acknowledged that many municipalities are moving toward the use electric vehicles.
“I want to make sure they service the needs of the town appropriately,” Gordon said.
Lyons said the town is currently studying its wastewater management and focusing on “trouble areas.” She said a study was last done in the 1980s.
She said that American Rescue Plan, or ARPA, funding has been allocated to do a study on how wastewater removal can be better addressed downtown, but she didn’t have an answer as to how to improve the public water systems there yet.
“A large-scale sewer system isn’t really feasible in our town,” she said. “How do we encourage people to upgrade their systems? I think that’s something we need the experts to point to is what is going to be the best path forward for our businesses to thrive,” she said.
Gordon said the wastewater management and access to public water has been a long time limitation for businesses downtown and emphasized the importance of finding a solution. She said improving wastewater management will help with runoff and its effect on the town’s ecosystem.
“This is a huge elephant in the room,” said Gordon.
She said that once the council has professional cost estimates and information on viability for wastewater systems, it can make decisions on how the ARPA funds will be spent.
“We only have so much money to spend and if we want to keep our taxes reasonable, we need to prioritize and make those hard decisions on how we’re going to spend our money,” Gordon said.
Along with addressing major issues, Lyons touted her successes as first selectman while Gordon proposed how she would do the job.
“Over these last four years I’ve taken these responsibilities very seriously,” Lyons said. “Under my administration we’ve seen a resilient Madison that has endured and even thrived despite the challenges we face together, a town of pragmatic plans that align with our community values.”
Lyons said that more than 90% of votes on the Board of Selectmen have been unanimous and that all of the board’s budgets have been bipartisan and “referendums launched with unanimous support.”
“The town is financially strong. I want to keep us on track with a more sustainable future by completing community projects as promised to voters. Let’s not start throwing unnecessary roadblocks in our way (and) continue to invest in our crown jewels, Madison’s beaches and schools. I will continue to tackle the problems of the day with competency, creativity, collaboration and vision,” Lyons said.
Gordon said her focus will be “crystal clear” in keeping Madison an affordable place to live while prioritizing the town’s “exceptional education system” and safeguarding natural resources and open spaces.
“These are the pillars of our community and I believe we can maintain and strengthen them together,” she said.
Gordon emphasized that controlling spending is the key to keeping the town affordability.
“We must ensure every dollar is spent wisely, prioritizing essential needs over wants in capital projects. I’m committed to upholding our strategic plan, ensuring our projects align with community vision for Madison,” she said. “I will work tirelessly to defend these characteristics that define our town. Madison deserves a First Selectman who will stand up for its values, boards that work collaboratively and diligently to keep it affordable and keep its unique charm intact. Together we can ensure a bright future for Madison.”
The debate was hosted by the League of Women Voters.