The Orange candidates for first selectman last week faced off at a well-attended debate, organized by the Orange Chamber of Commerce at Grassy Hill Country Club. The debate, the third of this election season, pitched incumbent Republican First Selectman Jim Zeoli, who is seeking his eighth term, against Democrat Jody Dietch, chairman of the Democratic Town Committee. University of New Haven Provost Dr. Dan May moderated.
Both candidates have deep roots in the community, having grown up here, and both professed their love for their hometown. Where they differed was primarily on the question whether or not to support efforts to consolidate the school administration under the umbrella of the Amity district.
Talks are underway at Amity with all three member towns, and Dietch is in support of that effort. If all schools in the BOWA district would follow the same curriculum, it would seamlessly prepare all students in the three towns for the high school experience. “I believe it makes our school district stronger,” she said. For years the administrators of the four districts — Bethany, Orange, Woodbridge and Amity (BOWA) — have talked about streamlining the instruction, she said, but it hasn’t happened. “It’s not as easy as it sounds.”
Zeoli corrected her when she stated that the Amity board had voted unanimously to launch an official study of the issue, saying he was not aware of such a vote. Aside from that, he emphasized that all three towns must vote in the affirmative for the new arrangement to be implemented.
“I stand behind K to 6 and 7 to 12,” Zeoli said. He questioned whether the savings achieved through administrative consolidation would be substantial enough to make the whole switch worthwhile. If one was to combine the budgets of all the BOWA schools and divide that in half to determine Orange’s share of the Amity budget, the town would face a $1.4 million increase in its school budget. To keep Orange’s share flat, Amity would have to reduce its expenditures by over $2 million, he said.
Dietch, an Amity graduate herself, whose sons also went through the public schools and graduated from Amity, agreed that the system has afforded her and her family an excellent education. But, “there is nothing wrong with trying to be better,” she said. All the top districts in the state are K-12 districts, she said.
Both candidates named taxes as one of the top two issues facing Orange, followed by providing housing choices for seniors who want to downsize or for young people moving in or hoping to stay in town.
For Zeoli, the biggest challenge is the “extra burden of taxes being put on us by the state Legislature and the cuts we potentially face.” He said uncertainties in revenue and especially the timing of the town budget referendum vs the state budget adoption led to the town raising its taxes to be covered for a potential shortfall. Then the state budget was more favorable than expected. “We planned money for the teachers’ retirement fund, for Education Cost Sharing, and loss of LOCIP – it didn’t happen,” he said. Consequently, the extra dollars end up in the General Fund, which has been growing to a whopping 20 percent of the operating budget over the last decade or so.
“There needs to be a little bit of surplus in there,” Zeoli said. The surplus also helped the town attain a AAA bond rating by Standard and Poor’s rating agency.
Dietch responded, saying Orange should stop blaming Hartford for its high tax rate. The Orange fund balance is not only higher than most, but 5 to 10 percent higher than other towns with the same AAA bond rating. “He is taxing you to inflate the unassigned fund balance,” she said. The money – at least in part – should be used for capital projects, she suggested.
As far as housing is concerned, both candidates agreed that Town Hall should be looking to provide more rental units for seniors who are looking to downsize. The question is where to locate those buildings. Locating apartment buildings in residential areas was not a concept embraced by either candidate.
Dietch also brought up the needs of millennials, those just starting out in a career. She said she thought that a recent proposal for mixed housing and commercial space in the Firelite Plaza at the intersection of Racebrook Road and Route 1 held promise, but was blocked by Republicans on the Zoning Commission. “There is more we could be doing,” she said.
Zeoli said he expected the owners of the plaza, the Sachs Family, to come back with a revised proposal. “He hasn’t given up yet,” Zeoli said. “Nor should he.”
Zeoli said there are large parcels of open space in the area between Route 34 and Route 1, that are currently privately owned, but may attract developers, such as the 305-acre Racebrook Country Club or Orange Hills Country Club – right up from Route 1. There is also Field View Farm on Route 34, which has sewer connections already in place. “These are locations that we need to pay attention to very carefully,” he said.
When audience member Maryann Holden asked the candidates what could be done to support the farmers and preserve the farmland, Zeoli, who is running a farm in town, had an immediate response: Shop local, he said. “You have to shop local – that’s all there’s to it.”
Dietch thought that more could be done to market local businesses, and remembered taking her children and their cousins to farm open house events. She suggested using the town’s news outlets to draw attention to the farms.
One of the central themes of Zeoli’s administration has been economic development, and he pointed out the construction that is under way along the Marsh Hill corridor, with Homewood Suites going up on the far side of I-95, and a Fed Ex shipping facility on the south-bound side of the highway.
He said there was a serious buyer for the Sam’s Club property, which he expects to be under contract before the end of the year. He said the Veterans Administration finally found a suitable home for an outpatient center on Edison Road. “I worked hard over several years to land that deal,” he said. Plus, Edison Road is full, he said. When he first started in his role as first selectman, all that area was open space, with Edison Road just under construction.
Needs of the people
Zeoli also pointed out recently completed projects that benefit residents, such as locker rooms at the pool and the renovation project at High Plains Community Center, as well as road paving, and the Derby-Milford Road bridge construction. These things keep property values moving, he said.
Dietch meanwhile slipped in ideas to improve the quality of Orange’s dogs and their owners. “I loved meeting all the dogs,” while going door-to-door this election season, she said. “Hopefully we can have a dog park in town.” And, at another point, she talked about having more of a town center.
Debate Moderator Dr. May asked the candidates about a demographic that is often overlooked in the political arena: The teens.
“That’s pretty challenging,” Zeoli said. “We offer many, many sports programs, and entertainment venues for them to have things to do. He also mentioned the outreach programs offered by Orange’s Youth Services Coordinator Jessica Simone. “Yet, you will always have a group – we try to do as much as we can for all the population – but if they don’t want to participate, you can’t make them.”
Dietch said her sons were connected through baseball, which they loved. She recommended parents work with the schools. “They see our kids differently than we do.”
Dr. May also brought up the issue of vaping, asking candidates how the first selectman could help schools cope with the issue.
Jody Dietch said the state will probably step in before the town. She talked about the health concern related to THC and vaping, and how that can lead to further addiction issues, in particular opioids. “We don’t talk about an opioid problem in this town,” she said. Orange may not have the same statistics as other towns, but it is happening, she said, referring to recent deaths. “Vaping is an addiction and we need to help them get off it,” she said.
Zeoli agreed. “At first it seemed harmless, now it is a huge problem,” he said. He said he spoke to the town attorney about the issue, to see if the town should prohibit the marketing of vaping products, but the state is probably going to act on it. If the town were to prohibit it locally, the kids would procure what they need in neighboring towns.
As for opioid deaths, Zeoli said two good friends lost sons and both were saying they don’t understand how that happened. “It’s devastating,” Zeoli said. “You gotta be the parent, you can’t be the friend,” he said.
“We all do the best we can with our kids,” Dietch said. She suggested to reach out to Bridges, a mental health and addiction recovery program, and run more education programs in the community.
Right in her opening statement Dietch embraced a more focused effort to make Orange greener. She said would like to improve recycling in town. The town could facilitate use of more solar panels and could work with the gas company to extend the natural gas lines. She cited Gov. Ned Lamont’s pledge to make Connecticut a “zero carbon state” by 2040, adding, “I’d like Orange to be a town that leads the way” toward that goal.
She said the two highways — I-95 and the Parkway — that connect Orange to the New York to Boston corridor represent a great opportunity for development. But traffic through the residential areas should be calmer, and she suggested to look at installing speed humps in some areas. She also thought that creating open space parks, rather than more hiking trails, would improve the quality of daily life for Orange residents.
She proudly pointed to the Democratic slate of candidates running on her ticket, about half of which are women, representing diversity and new faces and younger candidates. The Republican ticket meanwhile represents the “same-old, same-old,” she said. She encouraged voters to vote for “New eyes and fresh ideas.”
Zeoli meanwhile in a heart-felt statement, said, “the love for Orange runs deep in my bones – I haven’t been anywhere else, haven’t done anything else.” He said he had dedicated his life to this town and pledged to work for all, no matter what party.
By Bettina Thiel – Orange Town News Correspondent