Year in Review: Stratford's Top 10 Stories of 2003
Deanna Holgerson, EditorDecember 23, 2003
Reflecting back on 2003 as the year draws to a close, the Stratford Star offers a review of the top 10 stories of the year.
These stories stand out because of their significance with regard to the community, their likely effect on Stratford's future or their unique character amid the town's weekly news events.

In any local election year, Election Day outcomes figure among the top 10 stories. This year also saw a variety of political stories unfold, including the charter revision approved by voters to switch from a town manager to a mayoral form of government.

Charter changes



Voters adopted the proposed changes to the Town Charter in the November elections.

Two nonpartisan groups pushed their agendas regarding the charter change. Stratford's Time for Accountability and Responsiveness (STAR) 2003 pressed for the proposal to change the town government from a town manager-council format to a mayoral one.

A second group called Keep Efficiency, Effectiveness and Professionalism (KEEP) united in an unsuccessful attempt to retain the town manager-council format.

Members of STAR 2003 supported referendum question in favor of electing a full-time mayor, directly accountable to all voters. This grassroots group was not affiliated with any political party.

Members of KEEP believed some modest changes to Stratford's government could improve responsiveness and accountability without changing the government entirely.

The argument for a full-time chief elected official to lead Stratford and be accountable to the residents won in the Nov. 4 elections. This leader also would serve in a proactive manner as the representative of and ambassador for the town in state matters.

Changing Stratford's government to one with a directly accountable political leader will dramatically improve that person's ability to address critical issues, according to STAR 2003. These issues include state funding of education, economic development, housing, transportation issues, infrastructure improvements, and rising taxes

Voters agreed with this premise and voted to change Stratford's government to a mayor and council format. The change will go into effect in November 2005, when votes will elect a mayor to Stratford's top position.

Town Budget



Town Councilmen continued their fight over Stratford's $139.7 million budget for fiscal year 2003-04, which voters narrowly approved in June.

Democrats agreed that the town's budget should fully funds Stratford employees' pension plan while maintaining services. Shortchanging the pension fund would adversely affect the town's bond rating, said Robert Calzone, who was councilman-at-large during the budget season.

However, the Republican councilmen, who all voted against the budget proposal, called the Democrats' budget "fuzzy math." Several believed that the budget would only create more of a tax burden on already tax-strapped Stratford residents.

Republicans wanted to see the pension bond payments spread out over several years to help ease the burden on taxpayers.

Democrats said the Republicans' budget proposal would have cut about $2.15 million from the town's pension fund and would negatively affect the town.

The budget was approved 6-to-5 and increases municipal spending by 2 percent over current year expenditures. The mill rate increased 1.42 mills to 36.44. Property taxes for an average home, valued at $179,317, increased $298 annually.

Stratford taxpayers have a 68 percent phase-in assessment, rather than the customary 70percent, for the 2003-04 fiscal year to help offset the effect of revaluation.

Election



In addition to approving the Charter Commission's recommendations to elect a mayor in 2005, voters also elected several Republicans to the Town Council.

In a vote of 5,964 to 5,293, Stratford voters chose to change the town's form of government from a council-manager to a mayor.

When election night was over, the Republican Party emerged with a strong majority on the Town Council. Stratford, a traditional Democratic town, now has Republicans holding seven of the 11 council seats. Republican Joseph Crudo beat incumbent Democrat Robert Calzone for the councilman-at-large seat, 6,621 to 5,514.

Incumbents Jennifer Hillgen (R-1); Alvin O'Neal (D-2), Raymond Voccola (D-5), Louis DeCilio (R-6), Philip Pepin (R-7), James Feehan (R-9) and Michael Henrick (R-10) retained their seats. Gavin Forrester (D-3), Angelo Stavola (D-4) and Norman Aldrich (R-8) were elected to their seats on the Town Council.

New agenda in Stratford



Crudo is now the council's majority leader with Voccola serving as the minority leader. Elected as the councilman-at-large and seated as the chairman of the Town Council, he began working on his 100-day report after just two weeks on the job.

Crudo promised to create a report, set goals and revisit the Town Council's progress on its goals in March 2004.One of Crudo's first goal is to fill open spots on town commissions. If commissions can be combined or dissolved, they will be, he said.

In addition to preparing the first 100-day report and filling vacancies, Crudo is addressing other council goals. Another crucial goal Crudo wants to accomplish while in office is getting things ready for a mayor to take office in two years.

Crudo plans to focus on a town-wide property tax audit in an effort to find out what Stratford has and what it doesn't in the way of taxable properties.

This inventory list goes hand-in-hand with economic development and increasing Stratford's Grand List, something Crudo pledged to do in his campaign.

Another top priority for Crudo is to seek funding for the cleanup at the Stratford Army Engine Plant so the site can be developed and returned to the tax rolls. In addition, he wants to see the Stratford Center and railroad station projects completed and Barnum Avenue redeveloped.

Longbrook Park



Cleaning up Long Brook Park and Brewster Pond became a huge issue in Stratford during the summer and came to a head in September when residents addressed the Town Council.

Residents complained the town has neglected the pond for more than 10 years. Now, residents say, they can't walk their dogs, take their children near the pond to play or race their sailboats in the pond because it is so filthy. Residents expressed concerns about their health, the West Nile virus, and decreasing property values.

Town officials claim the summer weather contributed to the algae blooms a changing ecosystem. Geese that make the pond their home also are contributing to the mess.

Town Manager Michael Feeney outlined several ways to improve the park and control its algae problem in a report. These methods include natural controls and chemicals to help clear the water. The Stratford Public Works Department's parks division is in charge of maintaining the pond.

When residents use fertilizers and chemicals on their lawns, it ends up in the storm drains, eventually leading to Brewster Pond, Feeney said. The town built a retention pond in 1981 to help filter the storm water that ends up in the pond.

Feeney said the town would make a better commitment to maintaining the pond and cleaning the basins in the future. After hearing complaints about condition at Longbrook Park, the Town Council decided that a commission to oversee the park would help the situation.

Calzone, when he was councilman at large created an ordinance establishing a Longbrook Park Commission and presented it to the council in October.

The Longbrook Park Commission could help plan and recommend future improvements to the park, such as new benches, lighting, sidewalks, and playground upgrades.

The commissioners could also seek funding from state and federal sources to help pay for park improvements and help develop a plan for the use, preservation, development, and maintenance of Longbrook Park.

It also would make recommendations to the council about park rules and regulations and appropriate use of the park. Longbrook Park commissioners would be responsible for reporting conditions that might cause the park to deteriorate, become hazardous to the public health and safety, or become unusable.

The commissioners would write quarterly updates to the council regarding Longbrook Park. No action has taken place since before the election.

Long Beach



Residents who feared Long Beach would be sold and that the owners or the federal government would block their access breathed a little easier in 2003. They made it perfectly clear to the Town Council that Long Beach should remain in town hands and not be sold to private individuals.

The Town Council heard their concerns and ended all negotiations to sell the 35-acre property to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the cottage owners who live there. Minority Leader Jennifer Hillgen (R-1), who represents the district, said that ending the sale negotiations was the best decision the Town Council could make.

She believes if the town has to sell the property, U.S. Fish and Wildlife should be allowed to purchase it, not the cottage owners. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered $3.9 million to purchase Long Beach from Stratford.

Plans for the land included making it accessible by ferryboat from Bridgeport and constructing fishing piers and hiking trails for passive recreation. Fish and Wildlife also would have established guidelines for protecting endangered bird species.

The federal service also would have covered the cost of removing the cottages, something Calzone said he feared Stratford would have to pay. However, Hillgen said many of the cottage leases state that the owners would have to remove the buildings at their own expense.

The cottage owners offered the town $5.8 million for Long Beach. They also agreed to pay an additional $500,000 to buy emergency vehicles for the peninsula.

If the town chose to sell Long Beach to the cottage owners, it would have gained about $450,000 in tax revenue per year. Additionally, other Stratford residents would still have access to the beach, according to that proposal.

Both offers were considered extremely low since the Stratford Tax Assessor's office places the value of Long Beach at between $17 million and $22 million. Even if the town sells Long Beach to the federal government, there is no guarantee it will continue to have public access.

The fish and wildlife agency could fence-off the property from the public if they owned it because Long Beach is one of the last remaining natural barrier beaches in Connecticut. Some councilmen did not like the decision, which was made in a 6-5 vote.

Calzone said town officials have been moving towards selling the property to the federal government since 1997. The fight could still land in the courts, since the town is involved in a lawsuit with the cottage owners.

Grand List



Stratford's Grand List grew by 2.94 percent last year to $3.08 billion, an increase primarily due to the town's property revaluation phase-in.

The Grand List, the total value of all property, motor vehicles and business equipment in the town, increased $88 million from the previous year's $2.99 billion. Real estate values in Stratford increased to $2.6 billion, and motor vehicle values increased to $267 million.

The names on a list of the top 10 taxpayers in Stratford, however, have changed little, a fact that concerns many town officials.

Many town officials agreed that although the Grand List may have increased, Stratford has not seen real economic growth in years. Some officials believe that if the town didn't have a revaluation phase-in, the increase in the Grand List would be nonexistent.

Stratford's 2002 Grand List increase means that more homes are being built in town, but new businesses are not coming to the community. This increases the strain on town services and the school system.

In 2001, a phase-in began for property values established in 2000. Properties were valued for tax purposes at 64 percent of their assessed value two years ago. Last year, properties were taxed at 66 percent of their assessed value, and this year that figure will increase to 68 percent. Properties next year will be taxed at 70 percent of their assessed value, the statewide standard.

The top 10 taxpayers collectively account for almost 8 percent of the net taxable Grand List. Sikorsky Aircraft remains the largest taxpayer in Stratford by far, with a net taxable assessment after the phase-in of $118 million, which represents 3.85 percent of the overall Grand List.

Relay for Life



For the second year in a row, participants in the Relay for Life of Stratford not only met their fundraising goal, but they exceeded it.

The goal for the event, which took place May 9 and 10 at Bunnell High School's track, was $110,000. Relay for Life volunteers realized participants had raised more than $150,000 once all the donations and pledges were counted.

More than 2,500 people attended the Relay for Life of Stratford. There were 77 teams that participated in raising money for the American Cancer Society as they walked around the high school track during the overnight event.

All of the money raised at the Relay for Life of Stratford benefits the American Cancer Society's research, advocacy, education, and service programs to local patients and families.

More than 300 local cancer survivors and caregivers participated and attended a special survivor reception before the event began.

White Wolves



An alleged white supremacist group, the White Wolves, brought attention to themselves in the spring when members of the group allegedly disrupted a Bridges Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender meeting at the Stratford Public Library.

After a scuffle with police ensued, Stratford resident Matthew Zrallack, 18, was arrested on charges of third-degree assault, intimidation based on bigotry or bias, and breach of peace.

According to Adam Schupack, assistant director of the Connecticut Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation League, the White Wolves is a white supremacist organization and is one of several that his organization monitors in Connecticut.

The White Wolves allegedly has been around one to two years and has one to two dozen members, mostly in their teens or early twenties.

Town Councilman James Feehan (R-9) took a strong stand against racism and the White Wolves. He said that the town must take action to stop acts of racism.

Feehan's views were prompted by an incident in which he took his children to a portable toilet at the beach and saw racist remarks carved into it. He also asked White Wolves members who attended a Town Council meeting to stand up and face him, which they did.

Feehan proposed a resolution pledging the council's support of federal and state laws against racism, which the Town Council approved.

Feehan said Stratford residents must not tolerate racist behavior. He also cited racially offensive graffiti, found in the men's room at the Blue Sky Diner on Ferry Boulevard, as unacceptable.

The Stratford Clergy Association asked clergy members, town officials and concerned citizens to promote tolerance of all people, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.

The Stratford Clergy Association collaborated with the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport hosted a leadership breakfast at St. Joseph's of Stratford National Catholic Church in Lordship, where affirmations of toleration were made available for anyone to sign.

By signing the affirmations, participants promise to promote harmonious interracial, intercultural and interfaith relations; oppose individuals and organizations that advance, encourage or abet hateful speech and action by one person against another; and show no tolerance for criminal acts motivated by hate.

School Budget



While school officials want to do what's in the best interest of Stratford's children, the money the Town Council allocated for next year is so tight that many programs and positions will be cut.

One program on the chopping block is Bright Beginnings, a special education program where children with various disabilities learn alongside little ones without special needs.

The Town Council approved $57,000 with the Bright Beginnings program in mind. Although councilmen wanted that funding to go towards the special education program at Second Hill Lane School, the board was under no obligation to put it there.

School officials put the money towards the "Come Play With Me" program, which is similar to Bright Beginnings.

The Board of Education approved a budget of $68.9 million for the 2003-04 school year, which excluded funding for middle school sports programs and cut 16 teaching positions and 11 tutors.

The board had $1.67 million less than the $70.6 million requested. The budget increased only 2.04 percent over the past year's budget.

Contracted teachers' salaries and benefits, and mandated special education costs, account for 80 percent of the budget. Cutting the elementary school positions, the tutors, middle school sports and implementing a new medical plan saved $1.02 million, according to school officials.

Technology infrastructure and professional development were also cut. Several school nurse positions were funded in the new budget, something several parents had asked the board to retain.

Stratford will continue to participate in the Six-to-Six Magnet School in Bridgeport, and allocated $25,000 for it. State funds will pick up the approximate $100,000 tab for Stratford.

Redistricting Map



The new voting districts maps, approved by the Town Council, brought controversy and allegations of political wrangling starting in early summer.

The new voting district maps divide Oronoque Village into District 8 and 9. The housing development for senior citizens was previously located only in District 8.

After the council approved the highly controversial map, Oronoque turned out not to be the only group of residents unhappy with that action. District 2 also rejected the map because the 53 percent majority of minority voters there are now reduced to 46 percent.

Louis DeCilio, who was the Redistricting Committee chairman, faced criticism and accusations of gerrymandering from residents and other town officials. Oronoque residents tried to force a referendum on the issue, but it was struck down by the Town Council.

Their petition also called for the Town Council to repeal the redistricting map it approved May 12 and to adopt the alternate map that council Democrats created.

New firehouse



Stratford finally started breaking ground for the new Main Street fire station that includes more living space, storage and an improved working environment for firefighters.

Fire department officials have been pushing for a new firehouse headquarters for nearly 10 years. The 60-year-old station that fire department headquarters are located in currently, has served its purpose, they said. The old station is no longer suitable for a modern fire department because it is too crowded, and no available storage space.

The old Stratford police station building, which once housed the town's health department, was knocked down once an asbestos removal evaluation is completed. The small shopping center next door to the old town building was also demolished to make way for the new fire station.

The businesses located in that shopping plaza were relocated to various spots throughout town. The town took the property through eminent domain. The new 27,000 square-foot station will be about three times the size of the current station and will take at least one year to build.

The new building should be completed by late fall of 2004.The new fire department headquarters will have larger living quarters for on-duty firefighters, offices, storage space, training rooms and three bays for fire trucks.

The Stratford Fire Marshall's office, which has been in a trailer alongside the Main Street station since 1989, also will move into the new facility.

Town officials still are considering whether to demolish the old fire department headquarters or convert it into Stratford EMS headquarters. The volunteer EMS is now located in the basement of the Stratford Police Station on Longbrook Avenue.

The $5.7 million bond issued to pay for the firehouse initially caused controversy with the Town Council. However, the Town Council approved the bond in January.

Airport expansion



Stratford residents told the Town Council that Sikorsky Memorial Airport must not be expanded, a contention that likely will continue in 2004.

Bridgeport officials believe the airport, which is owned by that city, will lose about 30 percent of its business if safety features are not upgraded. Businesses that use Sikorsky Memorial Airport, such as Sikorsky Aircraft and GE, prefer expansion to improve safety.

However, Lordship residents believe if the airport expands, their quality of life will be ruined. Many residents spoke about jets waking them up early in the morning and throughout the night. Others fear small plane crashes and some hope the airport downsizes until it closes.

©Stratford Star 2003

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