NAUGATUCK — To angry taxpayers, he’s a champion fighting bloated budgets. To residents who support elected leaders, he’s an opportunist.
Matt Katra stands at the forefront of two recent petition drives to give voters in his adopted hometown a vote on proposed spending plans.
Residents may have seen him outside Stop & Shop asking them to sign a petition to send the budget proposals to referendum.
While many know of him, not all know much about him.
Katra is happy to tell his story. He says he has always been upfront about his background, his beliefs and his political aspirations, which he says do not include using the budget battles for political gain.
“I’m just a concerned citizen who wanted to see if I could make a difference in town,” he said.
Katra is a 34-year-old computer architect who moved to Naugatuck after college to take a job. He grew up with three sisters in a middle class family in the small city of Nanticoke in eastern Pennsylvania, where half the city’s population of slightly more than 10,000 is, like Katra, of Polish descent.
He owns a modest, single-family house with a well-kept yard on the borough’s west side. The American flag flies over the yard every day, often accompanied by a Minnesota Vikings flag and sometimes by a Gadsden flag, which in recent years has come to symbolize the Tea Party movement. (Katra says he supports smaller government and lower spending, like others in the movement, but does not identify himself as a Tea Partier.)
Katra has never been married and has no children. Since he moved here, he has become involved in the community, as well as in politics.
He is currently volunteering to help the Naugatuck Arts Commission redesign its website; he’s a member of the Knights of Columbus; he has been a member of the Polish American Club. And he may become Naugatuck’s next Republican Registrar of Voters, filling an expected vacancy left by Janice Dambowsky.
In local government, Katra served from 2005 to 2009 on the Zoning Commission, from 2006 to 2009 on the Aquifer Commission and on the Board of Finance from 2009 to 2013.
Mayor Robert Mezzo, a Democrat, chose not to reappoint Katra to another term in the fall, and burgesses voted 5-3 to support Mezzo’s action. Most of them said they believed Katra was too political on the board — they viewed him as an obstructionist who used the meetings as a forum to spew his political beliefs.
Katra wholeheartedly disagrees, and said he was kicked off the board because Mezzo and others disliked his opinions.
He ran on the endorsed Republican slate for burgess as a relative unknown in 2011 and finished 12th out of 12 candidates. The top nine get on the Board of Mayor and Burgesses.
Currently, Katra is the vice chairman of the Naugatuck Republican Town Committee.
He was an ardent supporter of former Mayor Michael Bronko, a Republican who served from 2007-09 before being ousted by Mezzo. And Katra helped with the failed campaign of Jim O’Sullivan, a little-known Republican who lost to Mezzo in November.
Katra is a close ally of state Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, (R-70). The 70th House District covers about three-quarters of Naugatuck. And he’s spearheading the efforts in Naugatuck to garner support for Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley.
Much of Katra’s attention recently has centered around trying to spike the budget proposals in Naugatuck.
Immediately following the original budget adoption two months ago, he started a campaign on social media to force a referendum. His group gathered about 2,000 signatures for referendums on both the town and school budgets. Both budgets failed by huge margins at referendum, with about 25 percent of those eligible voting last month.
The Board of Mayor and Burgesses and Board of Finance have cut about $1.6 million from the original proposal, bringing the budget to a figure of $113 million, which would decrease the tax rate from 44.8 mills to 44.67 mills. That means most people would see a slight decrease in their property taxes if the budget is adopted.
The cut is not enough for Katra, and for many other disgruntled taxpayers. They have begun collecting signatures for a second referendum.
Board of Finance Chairwoman Diane Scinto, a Republican, said she wonders if any amount of cuts would satisfy the naysayers.
Mezzo said he believes Katra and others are orchestrating the referendum for political reasons, possibly because they have ambitions to run for local office.
Kim Kiernan, a Board of Finance member and chair of the Republican Town Committee, comes to Katra’s defense. She said he only works for the betterment of the community.
“He’s using the democratic process that is in place,” she said. “Obviously, his experience on the finance board gives him a great deal of knowledge about the process, and I feel like he’s going about it in a very respectful manner throughout the process.”
Katra also denies the political claims, and complains that his suggestions for cuts — to Hop Brook Golf Course, to the education system and from Town Hall — have not been implemented.
“This is completely apolitical,” he said. “This is to help people, many who say they can’t afford the taxes, to have a say about the process. Whether they vote yes; no: too high; or no: too low, we want them to have a vote.”
At the end of the day, Katra said, he hopes that Naugatuck will be better off for having citizens more involved in the budgeting process.
“I think Naugatuck is a wonderful town, and it has a lot of good things to offer,” he said. “I just think it can be done cheaper.”