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Video: Bumgardner, Hedrick debate economic development, taxes

Groton — City of Groton Mayor Keith Hedrick and Groton Town Councilor Aundré Bumgardner debated economic development, taxes and city and utility services during a Groton City mayoral race debate on Monday.

The League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut held the virtual debate, which was moderated by Jean Rabinow of the League of Women Voters Bridgeport area. City of Groton residents sent in questions in advance.

Hedrick, a Democrat who is running as a write-in candidate, and Bumgardner, the Democratic nominee after winning the March primary, are vying for a two-year term in the May 3 general election.

During the debate, the candidates outlined their visions for the city and positions on different topics, while also sparring over each other’s proposals and records in office. They found common ground on some issues, such as supporting maintaining Groton Utilities and opposing the consolidation of the city and town.

On the topic of economic development on Thames Street, Bumgardner said he would focus on improving permitting processes to “cut the red tape” He said the city should look at examples in the region, such as New London turning an office warehouse into a successful restaurant and the retrofitting of historic buildings in Mystic.

He said the city should improve the ability to walk and bike, for example by addressing sidewalks that are not handicap accessible due to utility poles; engage with entrepreneurs to activate the city’s waterfront; and establish a riverwalk, which he said he has been part of discussions as a Planning and Zoning commissioner. He said a new grant for an 8-slip boat dock will be a catalyst for economic development.

Hedrick said the city started streamlining processes when he started and is going online with permitting processes and the riverwalk is in progress through the Economic Development Commission.

He also noted initiatives for Thames Street including the grant for the dock on the waterfront with a handicap-accessible kayak boat launch and a study of Thames View Park. He said the city is looking at high-density development at the former Garbo Lobster facility and working with a Mystic restaurateur to develop a nearby restaurant. He said the city is working, through blight enforcement and planning, to get a property owner with 14 properties, to put storefronts on the first floor and residential on the top floors of the properties. The city also plans to establish a community group to help revitalize Thames Street.

The candidates were asked about their position on a new five-story apartment complex proposed for the Five Corners area and what they would say to people who have been against it.

Hedrick said the height and facade of the building are before the Planning and Zoning Commission. He said the city faces the challenge of where to locate the development since the city does not have a lot of space. for development. 

He said the development would help Electric Boat to house new employees as it expands.

“This is literally a baseball throw from the Electric Boat property so we need to decide what is the right thing to do and how can we do it and have economic development as a forethought in the City of Groton,” he said.

Bumgardner said, as a city Planning and Zoning commissioner, he cannot opine on an open application before the commission.

“I will say that while I support mixed use development, we do have to be cognizant and mindful of maintaining the community character so as mayor when we are looking at any development project in the city that will be first and foremost,” he said.

He said it is important to solicit input from neighbors about what kind of development they would like to see in their neighborhood and as mayor, he would hold meetings about developing master plans for the Five Corners area.

When asked if the candidates support maintaining the city’s relationship with Groton Utilities or switching to Eversource, Bumgardner said he is firmly opposed to any form of privatization and Hedrick also said he fully supports maintaining Groton Utilities, but they sharply disagreed on other matters.

Bumgardner noted that he was endorsed by the unions representing the GU lineworkers and supervisors and they cited his proposed “innovative approach” to investing in resiliency, reliability of the electric grid, and solar energy. He is proposing to develop a “robust solar program” so commercial and residential ratepayers can install solar panels on their rooftops, which he said would result in a reduction of their utility bills.

Hedrick countered that the proposed solar program and many other proposed green initiatives “will absolutely raise rates" and if all the initiatives are incorporated "rates will go up more than 20%" and people will pay the same rates as Eversource. He added that GU already is focusing on resiliency, has a program to manage trees so they don’t knock out power during storms and is investing in infrastructure.

Bumgardner said that while the mayor says he has lowered taxes, "that’s because he shifted the sewer budget for the city to the utilities budget thus doubling the water bill for many ratepayers.

Bumgardner said he would like to revisit the transfer to ensure families are not burdened with additional increases in their water bill for the years to come.

Hedrick said city taxes decreased from 5.77 mills in 2017 to 4.3 mills now and were flat last year and this year. He said the city moved sewer funding into a “lockbox” because infrastructure was being underfunded. He said now all users, including the government and nonprofits, pay based on usage, rather than property value. He said residents approved the approach at a Freemans meeting, and he called it a “fiscally responsible method to lower taxes and avoid tax increases due to surprise capital costs.” He said putting the sewer back into the tax base would raise taxes by 2 mills.

The candidates were asked if it can still be justified to have separate governments for the city and town at a difficult time when residents are using food banks. Both candidates said they oppose consolidation.

Hedrick said he works with the town manager, and city and town department heads work on opportunities to collaborate and save money, but consolidation, including the consolidation of police, would mean the city would lose services and he is “100% against that.” He said the services the city provides are not duplicative, because the town was not providing them to the city.

Bumgardner said he is firmly opposed to privatization of city services and to consolidation, but he would leverage his experiences forming relationships as a town councilor and former state representative to work with surrounding elected officials to promote tourism and economic development and work with the federal delegation, since Electric Boat is located in the city.

k.drelich@theday.com

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