The two contenders for the first selectman position, incumbent Jim Zeoli and challenger Kenneth Lenz, faced off October 11 in the traditional debate at Congregation Or Shalom, taking turns to answer six questions, ranging from addressing their goals and priorities for Orange, to the problems of cell towers, school security, senior housing, and tax increases. The event was sparsely attended, with the audience consisting mostly of the under-ticket and family members, in addition to a handful reporters and interested residents.
Both candidates had the chance to present their bios and make an opening statement. Zeoli spoke about growing up in Orange, his involvement in community groups, going away to UConn, then returning to Orange to stay for good.
Lenz talked about his family, children and grandchildren, his community involvement and his significant other, Marianne Miller. In his opening statement, Lenz talked about initiatives he wanted to institute if elected, namely to take a critical look at the budget; implement a planning committee; and help seniors stay in town.
Question 1: What are you planning to do to ensure that our children are safe in the town schools?
Incumbent Zeoli emphasized the importance of have a young generation grow up in Orange. “A town without children will become a tumbleweed town,” he said. He mentioned the safety improvements made to Orange schools in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, including new IDs, new vestibules and check-in procedures, wiring directly to the police and regular lock-down drills. All of these procedures, though under the purview of the school administration and Board of Education, are closely monitored by the Town Hall. Zeoli pledged to continue monitoring security procedures. He said he would work with other community groups, such as houses of worship – of which Orange has 16 — to make Orange a safe place. “Everybody has to do their part.”
Lenz took it a step further. After the December 14 shooting, every town implemented procedures so “schools can withstand an intrusion better than before,” he said. He pledged to make sure the necessary mental health resources are available. “We have to work with people” – he was referring to staff and mental health professionals — to help prevent similar occurrences.
Question 2: What do you think is the number one need in Orange as a priority?
Lenz named the excellent schools as the number one reason people move to Orange. Keeping the school buildings in good repair should therefore be the focus of the town’s leadership. “It is cheaper to maintain the buildings than to let the ‘ceiling cave in’ “ he said.
For Zeoli, the first priority would be to keep tax increases low. Even so, his administration has acted in support of the school system, for instance by hiring six more teachers in order to keep class sizes low. He also spoke in support of updating the technology available to the schools, recognizing that it is necessary “to keep our children moving forward,” he said.
Question 3: What plans do you have to stop the influx of cell towers in our community damaging the bucolic pristine character that Orange is known for?
Zeoli said at this point there are no new applications for cell tower placement in Orange. He noted that it was the Siting Council that decides where cell towers will be located. All the town can do is submit comments and concerns, and that is what he has done. “We try to locate them in areas with the least impact, whenever possible,” he said. At the same time, even if the cell towers are not popular, people come to expect ubiquitous reception. “We have pockets that do not have reception,” he said.
Lenz, saying he tries to look away when he passes one near his house, made similar points. “ultimately is it is out of our hands,” as to the placement of these installations, he said. He remembered some years ago a company proposing to put mini antennas on utility poles, rather than building separate towers. The company, Jim Zeoli said, went defunct.
Question 4: There continues to be a growing need for reasonable senior housing. Do you agree and if so, do you have insight as to how and where such housing could be developed?
Orange seniors are looking not for “affordable housing,” but quality housing they can afford, Zeoli said. Orange offers a range of options, from Silverbrook Congregate housing, to private care facilities to Fieldstone active adult housing.
His opponent however, said the town should be more proactive. The town could encourage a public-private partnership to come up with “reasonable” housing. Bringing up the waiting list for Silverbrook, he said to tell interested seniors that they have to wait seven years before they would be eligible to get a unit at Silverbrook is tantamount to telling them “get out of town,” he said. He proposed to form a committee to find an appropriate site.
Zeoli said that he and Lenz had talked about a site on Peck Lane that was on the market two years ago. However, the Realtor was looking to sell it for more than $1 million, he said. “That ended it.” He announced that the town was planning to have another lottery drawing for Silverbrook in the near future; and that some mixed-use development proposals in areas with sewers are expected to come up in Orange in the near future. Lenz countered by saying the property owner has not been able to sell at that price, and the town should reach out again, both for this parcel and others in areas with public transportation and sewers.
Question 5: Do you propose a need to increase taxes in the near future and if so what percent increase do you propose and for what specific purpose?
Neither candidate said “read my lips”. Instead, they left open the possible need for tax increases. Zeoli was cautious, saying the departments will submit their budgets soon for the next budget cycle. “We have things facing us that drive the budget,” he said, naming in particular debt service, a new dump truck and health insurance coverage increases. “I won’t guess on a percentage,” he said.
As for Lenz, “no one likes to see their taxes increase”. He would focus on the Grand List instead, he said, and seek grants from the state and federal sources. As to health spending, he would try to work with the unions, he said. In addition, they would go through the budget with a fine-toothed comb to control spending in every way.
Question 6: What improvements to Orange do you hope to achieve if you are elected?
Lenz said the town needs to focus infrastructure improvements, in particular the need to finish remodeling the High Plains Community Center, to make it highly functional and beautiful. It is not acceptable, he said, that a town like Orange should have such a low-quality community center. He also brought up the condition of the roads, saying many lesser-traveled roads have problems. He reiterated that the town needs to plan more pro-actively. The $100,000 budgeted line item for roads and bridges is not enough. Point made is the bridge on Derby-Milford Road, which the town will now need to spend $2-4 million to fix.
Zeoli countered by saying that both the bridge repair and the community center project have been carefully planned. Remodeling the community center was part of the bond project, Zeoli said. Some calculating mistakes were made, he implied, which led to delays. The responsible parties have since been replaced. As for the lack of planning, he said several agencies have five-year plans, including the town engineer, the highway department and the Board of Education.
In his closing statement, Zeoli reiterated that the town “is in the strongest position in years,” including housing, infrastructure and quality of life. From his opponent, all he hears is “the sky is falling,” he said. “In Orange the sky is NOT falling, he insisted, citing the millions of dollars spent to improve the schools and other buildings, and find efficiencies. Solar will be the next thing., he said.
Lenz in his closing statement focused more on personal style. He said his parents taught him to look out for those in need, and that has been a guiding principle. He pledged to be respectful of other opinions. He talked about serving on the Board of Selectmen and the column he has published on issues that have arisen in that forum. Voters have a choice. Orange can stay the same — as represented by the first selectman’s sixth term – or choose to move forward, he said.
By Bettina Thiel – Orange Town News Correspondent