BEACON FALLS — As First Selectman Christopher Bielik aims for his third consecutive term in office, the 56-year-old Democrat has his eyes on seeing projects in motion come to fruition.
“I like the direction the town is going in,” Bielik said. “We have some good ideas we want to see through. The implementation of some of those are just starting. I want to see they how they actually play out in real time.”
One of those projects is finding an economic development coordinator to guide the town’s development efforts.
The town budgeted $35,000 this fiscal year to hire an economic development coordinator. In October, the Board of Selectmen voted to hire Connecticut Economic Resource Center, Inc. (CERC) on the recommendation of the Economic Development Commission. Under the agreement, CERC will develop a strategic economic development plan for the town.
“Taking an opportunity to have somebody whose job it is to actually do this and help us to understand what we are as a municipality, what the things are we have to offer, and then set an identity for ourselves and go and pursue that identity — that’s a new approach for us. We are excited about the possibility,” Bielik said.
Once CERC has completed its work, the town will either hire an individual or company to be the permanent economic development coordinator.
“We are starting, but it is just the initial phases right now, and I want to see what direction it will go in,” Bielik said.
Bielik, who is married with one child, served in the U.S. Navy for 22 years before retiring with the rank of commander in November 2004. He was elected to the Board of Selectmen in 2011 and won the race for first selectman against incumbent Republican Gerard Smith in 2013. Bielik, who served on the Conservation Commission and the Board of Finance prior to 2011, ran unopposed in 2015.
Bielik will not be unopposed this year as Republican Ken George, a political newcomer, is challenging him. The election is Nov. 7.
Aside from the economic development project, Bielik said he wants to keep moving forward with paving roads throughout town including the Hill District, which is one of the oldest neighborhoods in town and includes Wolfe Avenue and Maple Avenue.
The town’s wastewater treatment plant is also in need of major upgrades. Bielik said he would explore ways to upgrade the plant that don’t require the full reconstruction of the plant.
Bielik did not say exactly which upgrades he was looking at but said the town has been eyeing a number of operational upgrades that would help improve efficiency.
Bielik said many of the projects the town could move forward with would require state funding — something that is a big question mark as the state deals with a budget deficit. As of Tuesday, the legislature hadn’t adopted a state budget.
“Until we have a better idea of what is going on, everything we’d like to do is all pipe dreams. I am waiting to see what is coming out of Hartford before I can actually know what are the resources I am going to have on hand to be able to try and do stuff,” Bielik said.
Bielik said even the day-to-day operations of the town that don’t rely on state funding can be impacted if Gov. Dannell Malloy’s plan to make towns pay for a share of the payments for teacher pensions, which the state covers completely now.
“My plan is to not tax the people of Beacon Falls for a bill we didn’t generate ourselves,” Bielik said. “If it turns out that we end up getting a bill for this thing, I will take a close look on our part to see if that is a bill we can pay without impacting the people of Beacon Falls.”
The town faced its own issues when it came to crafting a budget for this fiscal year.
Due to a property revaluation, the town’s 2016 net grand list decreased $25.1 million. The decrease in the grand list coupled with increases in town spending and the Region 16 Board of Education budget led the mill rate to increase 3 mills to 35.9. Region 16 oversees schools in Beacon Falls and Prospect, and the school budget is separate from the town’s spending plan.
The increase in the mill rate hit residents of Chatfield Farms, a 55 and older community, the hardest because their property values increased following the revaluation. That combined with the mill rate increase meant significant increases in their tax bills.
The town and administration came under heavy criticism from Chatfield Farms residents for the revaluation and the mill rate increase.
Bielik said the town is working to increase the grand list, which will subsequently lower the mill rate, through actions like hiring an economic development coordinator.
“Attracting more business is the easiest way for us to build that grand list,” Bielik said.
Bielik said the town is still working to make the proposed Beacon Falls Energy Park, a 63.3-megawatt fuel cell project, a reality.
The plan is for the fuel cell park to be built on a 23.8-acre former stone and gravel quarry site owned by O&G Industries on Lopus Road. O&G, based in Torrington, is managing the project under the name CT Energy & Technology.
If built, it would be a boon for tax revenue in town. However, the plan has been stalled for the past year as CT Energy & Technology works to obtain financing.
However, the project can be built in smaller pieces and still bring tax relief to the town, Bielik said.
“It may not be the entire segment all at once, but building something like that in town in some form is something that will have a net-positive impact on the overall grand list reduction we had. It will certainly help mitigate and smooth out and generate some revenue for us like we had originally planned,” Bielik said.
Bielik pointed out that the state recently passed legislation calling for the purchase of 150 megawatts of fuel cell energy. Since the Beacon Falls Energy Park was originally proposed to be built in phases, it would be easy for the company to just build one phase, he said.
When voters head to polls on Nov. 7, Bielik encouraged them to look at his record when making a decision.
“I think all you have to do it look at the last four years. There is a proven track record of success there. The way we have been managing this town is at least as good, if not better, than it has ever been run in the history of this town,” Bielik said.
Bielik pointed to the town’s bond rating, which has risen from non-existent to AA — two steps below the highest ranking offered by both Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Fitch Ratings.
“That tells me that somebody who is independent and looking out for investors view us as a good risk, that we are doing this the right way here. I am really proud of that actually,” Bielik said.
Bielik said that serving as the commanding officer of a naval base adds to his experience.
“You have the same kind of day-in and day-out routine and non-routine occurrences you have to be able to react to. I did that successfully in one career already and I have transitioned into doing in this one now,” Bielik said.
With all the uncertainty in Hartford, Bielik said now is the time for someone with experience to lead the town.
“I think that, given the tremendous amount of uncertainty, to go with somebody that has hands-on experience and a background in this type of work, now more than ever, is the time where you need somebody like that. Bringing a novice into this position who has absolutely no prior experience doing anything of this sort, this is the worst possible time to be looking at going in that direction,” Bielik said.