NAUGATUCK — Robert Mezzo sat at the desk in the Mayor’s Office early last week putting the final touches on his six and a half years as the borough’s leader.
Mezzo, a Democrat who was first elected mayor in May 2009, didn’t seek re-election this year. Mezzo’s time as mayor officially came to an end Nov. 17 when he swore in Democrat N. Warren “Pete” Hess to succeed him.
Looking back, Mezzo said his time in office was about making the difficult choices rather than the politically easy ones.
“I’m leaving the borough in sound financial health by making some decisions I know were not particularly popular. There’s a lot of opportunity as a mayor to take a short-term approach to make yourself look good. I’ve chosen not to do that in many respects,” Mezzo said.
These decisions include closing the Naugatuck Visiting Nurses Association as well as privatizing trash and recycling collection and the borough’s youth and family services.
The borough also made changes to health care plans and pensions for employees, which were actions that did not have an immediate positive impact on the borough, but will “yield dividends in future years,” Mezzo said.
“I know those decisions were not particularly popular, but they were in the line of trying to make our government more efficient and prioritized,” Mezzo said.
Deputy Mayor Robert Neth, a Republican, said Mezzo’s work in office will have a great effect on the borough years from now.
“Bob has done quite a few things that will not show an impact right now, but will have a major impact in the future. People 15 to 20 years from now will say what a great job they did 15 years ago,” Neth said. “A lot of the things that were done over his six-and-a-half-year term have to do with the future of Naugatuck.”
While the borough won’t feel the effect of a lot of Mezzo’s work for years to come, there are some items, such as the redevelopment of the borough’s downtown, that have already begun to take shape.
“When I took office we all expected Renaissance Place to be built by this time. Unfortunately that was a casualty of the recession,” Mezzo said. “It was extremely tedious and challenging to wrap up the Renaissance Place agreement without litigation, without encumbering the land and putting us in a place to renew interest in the downtown parcels.”
In wrapping up the agreement, however, the borough was able to make what Mezzo considered an important, albeit somewhat unpopular, step forward — purchasing the General DataComm property on Rubber Avenue for $2 million.
“I knew there would be a lot of criticism for the purchase of the General DataComm building, but I never once questioned whether it was the right thing to do. I was willing to suffer the consequences of the populace not supporting us to get it done. I’ve looked at that property for over 30 years. It’s a brownfield. It has tremendous potential, but without the borough being proactive I think I would wake up 30 years from now and still be looking at an empty parking lot. I just didn’t want to see that happen,” Mezzo said.
Mezzo said not everything went exactly how he planned over the past six and half years, including a significant drop in the grand list in 2013 due to revaluation.
“Naugatuck has faced a lot of challenges in the last few years. Particularly after we revaluated our properties. We lost 26 percent of our residential grand list. The largest part of our taxable base in town was just gone. No one stole it, no one bought it. It just, because it was real estate, went away with the recession and subsequent revaluation,” Mezzo said.
The drop in the grand list was the driving factor in the mill rate increasing 11 mills. Mezzo and his administration came under heavy public criticism for the increase and budget decisions.
“I think there are some people that believe we spent so much money that we raised the mill rate by 11 mills. The mill rate went up when the property values went down,” Mezzo said. “That’s what happens when you start to have some growth residentially and then you have the kind of dramatic worldwide impact on property values we experienced here in Naugatuck.”
However, Mezzo experienced many successes as mayor.
Mezzo said one of the most hopeful moments he experienced in office was when voters approved the Naugatuck High School renovate-to-new project.
“I think for too long we felt we weren’t good enough for something like that. That happens in other towns but not here. That overwhelming yes vote showed me that this community still does believe in itself and is willing invest in its future,” Mezzo said.
The $81 million project, which broke ground in April 2013, is nearly complete.
Democratic Town Committee Chairman M. Leonard Caine III feels Mezzo has left the borough a better place.
“The economic situation and the requirements and mandates from federal and state governments make running a municipality nearly impossible,” Caine said. “Any chief elected official that can meet that challenge and cause a town to prosper or be poised to prosper has done a great job.”
As Mezzo prepares for a new chapter in his life, he doesn’t view anything he has done as mayor to be his legacy.
“My legacy is my children and always will be. I never thought of anything I have done here as being part of a legacy. I think a person’s legacy is their family,” Mezzo said.