The second set of debates for the Nov. 2 municipal election was for Tax Collector and for the Board of Finance. The Easton Democratic and Republican town committees cosponsored the debate, which was held on Oct. 24 at Samuel Staples Elementary School. Voters could attend in person or watch it on Facebook Live. David Smith, registrar of voters, moderated the debate in the absence of Daniel Underberger, who wasn’t able to attend.
The candidates for Tax Collector took the stage first. Incumbent Krista Kot, a Republican, faces Democratic challenger Michael Gutowski. Kot has held the position of Easton Tax Collector for the past five years.
The debate began with the question, “How do you see the office of Tax Collector evolving over the next 10 years?”
“A lot can change over 10 years,” Kot answered. “It’s based upon technological changes, state statutes changing, mandates changing and based on the budget.
“Our office is doing a very good job now,” Kot said. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
Gutowski emphasized the importance of having a personal touch, similar to a customer service model. “I believe picking up the phone and talking to my neighbor is best,” he said.
When asked about the doubling of the overdue tax backlog, Kot said Easton rarely uses tax foreclosure sales. She said Easton has only done it twice in the last 17 years.
The next question was, “Do you believe that each and every Easton taxpayer is paying his or her fair share of taxes?”
Gutowski said the Tax Collector does not set policy and is only responsible to collect based on the Tax Assessor valuations. Kot agreed. “Ours is a collection role,” she said.
When asked if the tax collector’s position is partisan, Kot answered, “Though we are nominated by our specific parties, I don’t believe politics has any place in that office.”
Gutowski agreed, “It should be approached as a bipartisan approach. Everybody should be treated equally. It doesn’t matter — race, religion or any other characteristic. You have to treat the individual professionally with prompt world-class service.”
The candidates were then asked what changes they would make to tax collection in Easton. Gutowski cited his ability to figure out and simplify complex processes. Kot said she already goes above and beyond in the job and gave an example from the previous Friday evening when she stayed after the office closed to help a taxpayer register their car at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Board of Finance
The Board of Finance candidates took the stage next. There are three open seats: a two-year opening to fill a vacancy and two six-year full-term seats.
Two candidates are running for the two-year seat. Art Laske is a Democrat who has been on the Board of Finance for 22 years. Laske is running against Republican Wendy Bowditch. Laske gave up his six-year seat on the board so he could directly challenge Bowditch to balance the party makeup on the board.
The current makeup is two Democrats and four Republicans. If Democrats win all three open seats in November the composition of the board would be three to three.
Three candidates are running for two six-year seats on the board. Jackie Olschan Kaufman (D), Ira Kaplan (D) and Michael Ring (R). Kaplan was absent from the debate due to a change in the date for his family vacation. Smith read a prepared statement from Kaplan.
The debate began with the question, “Why are you interested in serving on the Board of Finance and what makes you qualified?”
Kaufman said her long experience as an attorney working with municipal and government law qualifies her for the position. She also expressed interest in bringing a balanced discourse to the board.
Bowditch referred to her own significant experience having been involved in managing various aspects of Easton’s finances in different roles for over 20 years.
Ring wants to be on the board to bring sound judgement and to ensure that money is spent wisely.
Recently, two board members have made a series of controversial proposals including a proposal to defund the Park and Recreation Department. Laske said in his 22 years on the board he has never seen it as political as it had become in recent years.
He said, “What I’ve seen over the last couple years are proposals from certain members to cut a million dollars from the Board of Education. I want to serve with people who want to do the right thing for kids, for seniors and for the town.”
When asked about the role of the Board of Finance in preparing for Easton’s future Laske said funding education in an appropriate manner is important. Bowditch and Ring emphasized the importance of planning for the future.
The next question was, “The current budget is $46.2 million. Where do you feel you can reduce the budget while maintaining services and a quality education?”
Kaufman wants to ensure the strength of the school system. Ring wants to ensure dollars are being spent wisely. Laske answered, “The idea that you go in and reduce a lot of budgets [is wrong]. We are already tight in many departments. ”
The group was then asked what difference they will make on the Board of Finance. Ring said his business experience gives him a unique set of skills he thinks the board is lacking. Laske wants to even out the board by getting the ratio of Republicans to Democrats to 3:3.
Bowditch said, “I would never say let’s defund an entire department. I would never say let’s cut an entire department. I am not going to support that kind of behavior.”
“If elected what difference will you make on the Board of Finance?” Smith asked the candidates.
Kaufman pointed out she has experience as an alternate on the board. “I want what’s best for the town, for our family, for our neighbors and for our children,” she said.
The towns of Redding and Easton share the budget for Joel Barlow High School. A shift in the school age population has resulted in Easton’s share rising more than $700,000. The moderator asked the group how they would plan to accommodate for the cost increase while keeping the mill rate at a reasonable level and not relying on the town’s unassigned fund balance account.
Bowditch said it is going to be tough to do. “We are going to have to live with it,” she said. “We are going to have to look at all of our departments and potentially make some decisions we don’t want to make.”
Laske agreed the board would have to make hard choices. “We understand what your tax burden is but sometimes to do the best we can is going to result in hard choices. If we need to raise taxes, make sure the seniors have a program to keep them here.”
Ring wants to look for cost saving opportunities in technological upgrades. He agreed the unassigned fund balance should not be used. Kaufman wants to ensure the schools are the priority because that is what makes Easton so attractive.
The topic of the recent acrimony on the board returned when asked about how much the preferences of the residents of Easton factor into budget decisions. Laske wants to keep order on the board.
“I hope that the people in the town are going to repeat what is factual and not put out in mailings and other things, information that is not factual,” he said. “It makes our job harder and it makes the process toxic if certain groups are putting out false information.”
Bowditch likes how much attendance at the board has risen with the use of Zoom meetings. She wants the board to engage more with the public.
Kaufman agreed. “The budget process is one of the public forums where most of the voices of the community have an opportunity to be heard and share with your elected officials what is your highest priority. Silence doesn’t help us make the best decisions for the community.”
Ring wants residents to speak up at meetings and not through mailed fliers. “With the fliers the board ends up spending time defending itself and ends up doing nothing productive.”
Video of the entire debate can be accessed on Facebook live or on the town’s Vimeo account here. You can also read about the first debate, Trio of Candidate Debates Lead off with Region 9 School Board.
Photos by John C. Kane