Editor’s note: The Easton Courier asked the first selectman candidates to answer each of five questions in 500 words or fewer. The responses from Democratic incumbent First Selectman Dr. David Bindelglass follow below.
Please provide your budget priorities for the town and Easton Board of Education. How will you stay knowledgeable about how much revenue town departments and the local school board require? How will you reconcile funding requests while acknowledging the tax burden on residential property owners?
After four years as your first selectman I think my budget priorities are clear. We need to have the best schools that we can. We need to take care of our seniors and we need to provide the basic services to the people of Easton. In Easton, virtually all taxes are paid by our citizens, so we need to keep the tax burden low. Last year, amid the highest inflation rate in decades, our mill rate (the rate you are charged on homes) rose only 1.08%. The actual rise in the budget was 3.97%. We have a very healthy reserve fund and were able to supplement our revenue from the excess in that fund to keep taxes down, but even so, 3.97% in this environment with costs rising all around us is good. This has occurred even in the face of rising costs for the high school budget due to our increasing share of the student body, which is totally beyond our control.
How do we accomplish this? As first selectman I review every department’s budget line-by-line. We discuss priorities for the department. I work with the director of finance, and during the year, we review every purchase order. We are the only two members of town government who perform these functions. A good example of how this works is our building department, which now has lower costs due to changes in staffing, but I am told by many, functions much better. We also negotiate union contracts with our town workers striking a balance between fairness and containing costs. Careful attention to detail and thoughtful discussions have resulted in the reasonable budgets you have seen.
We also have excellent leadership on the Board of Finance. Gone are the days where the board entertained discussions about the actual elimination of vital departments and draconian cuts to the Board of Education. Deliberations by the board are open and reasonable, and a meaningful review of the budgets are performed, working with me for an excellent result. I must also point out that the Board of Education and superintendent have put forth very reasonable and conservative budgets as well. The superintendent has shared a well-thought-out plan, which drives his budgetary requests. The Board of Education budget can be viewed on line in real time, line by line, and its priorities are well explained.
I believe the work I have done has produced efficiencies with better services and low taxes. While budget deliberations in the past have been contentious, it seems that now there is so much trust in the community for our work that there is no longer any controversy. While I was disappointed in the voter turnout for the last budget referendum, I believe it demonstrates that the town is happy with the work that is being done on our budget, its priorities, the education, senior and town services that are being provided and the taxes paid for these services. That said, we must always strive for better.
How should Easton balance its responsibility to protect the water supply for Fairfield County with the mandate to provide more affordable housing options?
Protecting the environment should be a priority for every single person on this planet, and in Easton since we have so much natural beauty, we feel particularly responsible for this. The Courier asked how I plan to balance the need for affordable housing with protecting the watershed. I believe the answer to this question is that these are not mutually exclusive. It is not either/or. Protection of the watershed is a primary responsibility of the town of Easton. Whether from farm runoff, or flood plain management, or failing septic systems, or spills from traffic or construction accidents, we will not tolerate and we will correct threats to our watershed lands. A recent presentation to the board of selectman by the Aquarion water company outlined the close cooperation between the town and the operators of our reservoirs to preserve our watershed. Aqaurion is acutely aware of the potential and actual effects that man has on our water supply and will work with us to protect it, because they have the primary responsibility for the quality of our drinking water. There is so much more that goes to the protection of our watershed and water supply. Water preservation such as limiting watering our lawns, and proper septic system maintenance are key. We have worked with the Aspetuck Land Trust and our own garden club and agricultural commission to encourage sustainable plantings and the pollinator pathway. You can read about these things on the town website. Our farmers have already noted changes in growing cycles and farm productivity secondary to changes in our environment. In a community like ours where farming is so ingrained in our culture, we should all be concerned with climate change in general.
The state has made a commitment to providing affordable housing to its residents and has tasked all towns with participating. In Easton, we have a very limited ability to build any kind of housing due to lack of sewers and lack of buildable space. In a recent discussion with some of the young farm workers in town they recounted how young people didn’t even want to live in a town like Easton with no commercial activity. I have had discussions with some of the advocacy groups that have pushed for development in other towns and some have even toured Easton. They realize our limitations. With much public input we prepared a mandated affordable housing plan, and have written into our zoning regulations some provisions for accessory apartments to existing homes which would be affordable. Everyone should read it. Nothing in that plan threatens the watershed. We cannot!
People talk a lot about “home rule,” and as first selectman I could not agree more. We should have thoughtful regulations about housing in Easton and enforce them. Previously, now and forever, Easton will protect its watershed. If we are able to provide more affordable housing it will be done in a way that does not compromise that.
The Board of Selectmen recently revived the dormant Land Acquisition and Preservation Authority. What more do you propose to do to fund land acquisitions and preserve Easton’s agricultural heritage?
In Easton, farming is who we are. We are the Christmas Tree Capital of Connecticut. We are a center for agrotourism, highlighted by Citizens for Easton’s annual farm tour and a recent, first-ever visit to our farms by the state secretary of agriculture. We have wonderful farm stores where one can find most anything, locally and sustainably grown. Perhaps most importantly, our farms are the center piece to the beauty of Easton. They must be preserved and sustained.
It is no secret that farming is very hard work. Many of our farms have been in families for years, and in some cases the older generations of farmers can no longer continue to do this grueling work, while the next generation has moved out of town or has other interests. To sustain these farms several things are critical. We must create town policies that support agriculture and agricultural facilities. As the situation with the slaughterhouse has shown, this is harder than it sounds, and we have facilitated cooperation between our Agricultural Commission and Planning and Zoning Commission to write meaningful regulations that protect our farmers but are also reasonable to our neighbors.
If farmers are going to retire, we need to be able to encourage new young farmers to come to town. To do that, we need farm-friendly regulations. One great thing for farming in the last four years is the transition. which is happening at Silverman’s, to a new young farmer. Would that have occurred if Easton were not so farm-friendly? We have preserved two large farms in Easton, Gilbertie’s, with the help of the Aspetuck Land Trust, and the Barney farm, with a conglomeration of state and Easton funds. These are firsts for Easton, and this work must continue.
There is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but we must identify properties at risk and use whatever means we can to preserve them. We recently reconstituted the Land Acquisition and Preservation Authority to look for lands at risk and propose ways to preserve those lands. It will be a challenge to find ways to fund potential purchases, but we must look for partnerships like the land trust, and grants, and consider funding some purchases ourselves. The Agricultural Commission has also looked at ways to find farmers willing to come to Easton to take over existing farms, as happened with Shaggy Coos. All of this is a focus of our land use consultant as well, and we are grateful for the dedication of those willing to serve on the Agricultural Commission, past and present, as well as the Land Acquisition and Preservation Authority.
Farm preservation will affect Easton for many years, and it is a complicated issue. It will not be solved easily by slogans. It will take effective, creative leadership and cooperation between different groups in town. We are off to a good start, but we must continue to make this a focus and to look for creative solutions.
What are the top challenges facing Easton and how will you address them?
What are the challenges Easton faces going forward? First, it is important to note going forward that many are unknown. Four years ago, no one would have listed dealing with a global pandemic as a challenge, but it dominated everything for more than a year. We have discussed in previous questions that providing needed services and great education and senior services while maintaining the lowest possible taxes is critical, and discussed how we do that. We have also discussed the realities of changing climate affecting our farms. There is also our resiliency to ever-worsening storms to consider, which I have been working with the power and water companies among others to address. We have talked about state mandates to involve us in solutions to the state’s lack of housing, which are addressed in the affordable housing plan we have submitted. It has ideas consistent with maintaining who we are as a town and respecting the unique limitations of Easton. We have talked about land preservation and the steps we are taking.
In Easton we don’t take well to change. Still, since the pandemic, there has been a significant change in our population with approximately a quarter of our population being new to town. Before anything else, Easton is people. We must make every single person feel welcome and a part of our community. We must provide every person with the services they need, whether that means maintaining a vibrant Senior Center, high-quality emergency services with adequate facilities, a great library, open space, excellent parks and recreation and great schools where children feel welcome and free to learn.
In Easton, our people also have the power to make our laws. As I have done, we must provide every member of our community with access to information and with a voice in what we do. We must continue to provide information about what is happening in town. We give the people the final say, first through an historic new ordinance, which gives the people the ultimate say in decisions about town land and by putting all important decisions to town votes.
Where all of these challenges come together is in maintaining the value of our homes, which for most of us, is our biggest asset. Our reputation and the way others see our town is what drives our property values. We must fix legitimate problems that arise in our town, but we must also correct misinformation which falsely makes us look bad.
Lastly, there are challenges as a first selectman that are hard to understand if you have not experienced them. I believe there are people in town who put their own interest in front of the town’s. My challenge is to still give them an opportunity to be heard and to actually listen to them. In a way never seen in Easton before, it is to even work with them to achieve compromise and to find solutions, which may not be exactly what everyone wanted, but which solve problems.
Why should voters vote for you?
I believe that in the past four years the people of Easton have come to understand what I believe and how I perform my job as first selectman. Every day I draw on the leadership skills I have gained through running a small business/medical practice. You have seen me lead through a pandemic, offering services to our seniors throughout the pandemic, unparalleled in our area. I have worked through a terrible storm, keeping you informed and driving the quickest repairs possible, and then driving education for preparedness and positive steps to increase our resilience. You have seen me drive a solution for the South Park property, solving a problem which had bedeviled this town for decades.
You have seen that I believe that including people in the government of their own town and providing them with the power and information to do so is how Easton should run. The 200-plus posts you have read from me did not happen before. The Land Use Ordinance that I negotiated with some of my staunchest detractors gave historic power to the people of Easton to control the sale of town lands. If you are new to town you may think this is always the way it was. You may struggle to understand why people who have been here for decades are always trying to convince you that there is some backroom deal or cover up all the time. There is some history that helps explain those fears. Historically, we had one-party rule in Easton, and decisions were made behind closed doors. Large land purchases, such as the purchase of the land for Samuel Staples Elementary School and the Morehouse fields, were negotiated privately by the first selectmen and then rubber stamped by the Board of Selectmen, and where necessary by the Board of Finance. Without weekly posts that you read now and little information on our town website, even potential problems could be covered up. Since my being elected that has changed. Where there is controversy, I have told the truth and as events unfold, it has been the honest information that I have provided, not the misinformation of others, that has proven true.
Fiscally, I have made decisions in town government that have kept our taxes as low as possible. Look up our mill rate and see that we stack up quite well against other towns, especially with no commercial enterprise. Fiscal responsibility, openness and truthfulness help drive our great reputation and support our property values.
Lastly, my career for decades has been as a caregiver, in my practice and around the world. It will always be who I am and what drives me. It leads me to push for our town to be welcoming and inclusive. It leads me to care for our citizens whether that means senior services, great schools, preservation of land, or good administrative government. It leads me to listen to all and be willing to work with anyone. I hope you will allow me to continue to serve you.