Mayoral race takes unexpected turn but still on

Mayor Robert Mezzo, left, a Democrat, and attorney James O’Sullivan, a Republican, are vying for Naugatuck’s top political seat.

Mayor Robert Mezzo, left, a Democrat, and attorney James O’Sullivan, a Republican, are vying for Naugatuck’s top political seat.

NAUGATUCK — The mayoral race in Naugatuck lost some of its luster last week when Republican challenger James O’Sullivan announced the suspension of his campaign for medical reasons. However, the news from his opponent has not changed how incumbent Democratic Mayor Robert Mezzo is approaching the Nov. 5 election.

“We’ll continue to attempt to get our message out,” said Mezzo, 42. “We’ll run our campaign to the best of our abilities and means as we planned.”

Mezzo said he is respectful of O’Sullivan’s health concerns, but added he would have liked the opportunity to debate his challenger and question the specifics behind what he described as general statements made by the O’Sullivan campaign.

Following O’Sullivan’s announcement last week, the Naugatuck Chamber of Commerce canceled a mayoral luncheon and debate planned for Tuesday. Also, a debate being organized by the news website, Naugatuck Patch, never came to fruition.

Mezzo said he likes election years because they allow candidates to present their visions, but also give facts and specific plans to support their ideas.

“It seems like we’re not going to get the opportunity to do that this year, and I don’t know if that’s good for local democracy or any democracy,” Mezzo said.

In a press release issued Oct. 15, O’Sullivan, a 59-year-old practicing attorney with a law office on Church Street, said he was hospitalized Oct. 10 following an undisclosed medical scare and he plans to focus his time on his health “until further notice.”

 “This difficult decision was one made after consultation with my physician and family,” said O’Sullivan in the statement.

Messages left with the O’Sullivan campaign seeking to set up an interview for this article we’re not returned as of this post. O’Sullivan told the Republican American this week his committee was continuing to work on his behalf and he hopes to soon start campaigning again himself.

“I’m confident I can take office and I’m confident I can do the job,” O’Sullivan told the Republican American. “People get sick and they recover, and that’s my plan.”

O’Sullivan told the Republican American he too was disappointed there would be no debate this year, but he still considered himself a viable candidate.

“I think the issues are what the issues are, and I think the public is aware of what the issues are,” O’Sullivan told the Republican American.

O’Sullivan, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and was a law enforcement officer on Long Island for about 20 years before moving to the borough 13 years ago, stepped forward this summer as a political newcomer locally to lead the Republican ticket. In contrast, Mezzo, a Naugatuck native, is no stranger to local politics.

Mezzo, who is an attorney by trade, served on the Board of Mayor and Burgesses from 1999 to 2003, before an unsuccessful run for mayor. In 2009, Mezzo defeated incumbent Republican Mayor Mike Bronko after winning a primary over Democrat Kevin Knowles to earn his first term as mayor. Mezzo was unopposed when he ran for mayor in 2011.

Mezzo said after he won his first term he expected to run for a second because it takes time to implement policies. Running for a third term was not as easy of a choice, he said, particularly with regards to family obligations. Mezzo and his wife, Naugatuck High School Associate Principal Eileen Mezzo, had their third child, Jack, in December 2011.

“The family always has to be the priority,” Mezzo said.

Mezzo said he decided to seek a third term because there are a few major endeavors — such as the Naugatuck High School renovation project and a long-term plan for the configuration of the borough school system — that he wants to see completed or started and stabilized.

One of the major projects he wants to see started is the revitalization of downtown.

“I do think that the core of our community is the heart and soul of who we are,” Mezzo said. “It built us as an industrial town, but I think it can be the center of the rebirth of our community.”

The borough put its hope for downtown revitalization on developer Alex Conroy and the Renaissance Place project in 2003. However, the borough’s contract with Conroy expired last year without a shovel in the ground. The Naugatuck Economic Development Corporation is currently reviewing expressions of interest from developers regarding downtown re-development.

“I think all of us back in 2003 when we first learned of Renaissance Place expected to be in a different place right now, but for many reasons, primarily an enormous recession, that didn’t happen,” Mezzo said. “But, the promise of a smart-growth, transit-oriented downtown is still a vision that many of us who worked on this for several years believe is possible.”

Mezzo said he feels the re-development of downtown is on the right path. He said the borough is still sorting through the responses from developers and didn’t discuss the details of those responses, saying he didn’t want to compromise the process.

Mezzo said the borough’s economic policy is guided by the NEDC in a public-private partnership with leaders from both political parties and the business community. It’s a partnership, he said, that will continue.

“I think the mayor has to be a driving force in that and I will continue to take the lead role,” he said. “But we definitely work in collaboration with the people who make decisions on multiple levels as well as business leaders who are stakeholders in our future.”

Mezzo pointed out his administration has taken steps to make the downtown revitalization process easier by purchasing the General DataComm property on Rubber Avenue. With the property, the borough now owns close the 16 acres of land downtown, which Mezzo said makes the process easier because developers will deal directly with the borough instead of a third party.

Mezzo said he’s seeking a third term because he also wants to proceed with recommendations — including the creation of a government “customer service center” for residents, a long-term technology plan and consider a switch to self-funded workers’ compensation insurance — made in the long-term strategic planning study completed this year by the Blum Shapiro consulting firm.

The report’s most controversial recommendations center on the privatization of the borough’s trash and recycling collection, the Naugatuck VNA and Youth and Family Services.

When it comes to trash collection, Mezzo said, a cost-benefit analysis is being done and no change will be made unless it benefits the borough. Any change would not include residents having to pay for their trash pickup, he said.

“It comes down to math,” Mezzo said. “We’ll get the numbers, the numbers won’t lie.”

The question of whether the borough should be providing certain social services is one Mezzo said has been discussed for at least 15 years. He said he sees a growing sentiment among officials to eliminate funding for the Naugatuck VNA and Youth and Family Services. He fears the funding will be cut without a plan to fill the void. He said he would prefer to analyze the borough’s options to ensure the same level of care is maintained and the employees are respectfully transitioned.

“It’s more of a recognition that’s there is growing support not to fund them and to find an appropriate and respectful transition so that we can still deliver the same services and under a different model,” he said.

When O’Sullivan announced his candidacy in July, he said he heard from people that they were upset over rising taxes and the rising mill rate. He referenced the impact of the revaluation on the current budget, saying at the time, “I’m frustrated when this administration glosses over the impact of this new budget.”

The recent revaluation caused residential property values to drop on average 26 percent.  The mill rate increased this year by 11.25 mills to 44.8 mills mostly to compensate for the decline in residential property values. Mezzo pointed out that if the revaluation had not occurred the increase in the mill rate would have been .93 of a mill.

In a press release outlining his platform issued in September, O’Sullivan said he will work with every individual in identifying and addressing where the borough can save money, consolidate services and consolidate purchasing powers.

Mezzo said, “I don’t think that there’s any magic solution that improves any aspect of a local government or its budget over night.”

Mezzo said there are gimmicks that can be used to make a budget look good for one year, but that only passes the buck. He said there are certain services of government that are inherently unprofitable, such as proving public safety and education, but unlike the private sector those unprofitable services can’t be cut.  

“That being said, I think this upcoming budget year we have to be very conscience of the fact that our mill rate, regardless of why, has gotten to a level that’s very detrimental to the business community,” Mezzo said.

Mezzo said steps have been taken to make government more efficient and stable in the long term under his administration. The borough and the Board of Education have begun sharing services, including having the same comptroller overseeing finances, he said. He said that sharing of services can continue, particularly with fully integrated business offices, purchasing and maintenance departments.   

Mezzo pointed to a change to defined contribution pension plans from defined benefit plans for all municipal unions that has occurred during his administration as well as work, in conjunction with the school board, to bring employee health care contributions more in line with the private sector.

Mezzo said there is a temptation, when negotiating with unions, to focus on wages because no salary increases make headlines. But, he said, changes to health care and pensions will make government more sustainable in the future.

“Quite frankly that’s something that will benefit the borough for years to come,” he said.

O’Sullivan, in the September press release, said he will restore the people’s trust and confidence in government if elected.

“Regardless of my party affiliation I am for the ‘Naugatuck Party’ which consists of the residents and business owners in town who want to see a positive change and a leader willing to do it,” O’Sullivan said in the release. “I will restore the trust and confidence that is needed for people to feel like this is a town they can still afford to live in and grow in economically.”

Mezzo said his message to the voters is the same one from when he ran in 2009: “Focused leadership for real change.”

“What it means is, really, there’s lots of ways and lots of issues that you can get immersed in while seating in this office that in the long-term picture of your community’s health really should not be priorities,” Mezzo said. “You have to focus on main issues that are going to effect peoples lives and affect the future financial health and quality of life in your community.”