Mayor Robert Mezzo may have run unopposed, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t thought about his agenda for his second term in office.
“I still think, whether you’re running against somebody or not, you need to tell them why you’re running and what you plan on doing,” Mezzo said.
Mezzo said his decision to run for office was about a labor of love for the community.
“I think there’s a lot here that we can bring out to increase our tax base, make ourselves the first class community that we should be,” Mezzo said.
Looking to the future, Mezzo proposed hiring an outside consulting company to look at how both municipal departments and education function.
He said that Naugatuck can no longer afford to do the same things year after year.
“It was ironic coming in here as the mayor, hearing some of the same issues debated as when I was a burgess six, eight, 10 years previously,” Mezzo said.
He said this strategic planning approach will give Naugatuck the outside perspective it needs to give an unbiased report on where the town can cut costs, combine efforts and improve government efficiency.
“This is one I think we can’t afford not to do. … If we were a business that was close to $104 million and we didn’t do critical analysis and strategic planning, we wouldn’t last in the private sector,” Mezzo said.
He said the town needs to make careful action plans with which it can follow through.
“Getting from that talk to the actual action requires work,” Mezzo said.
He said he has already taken steps to make the town government leaner, including organizational changes in the Department of Public Works, automated trash collection, negotiating a new contract with Public Works employees, and changing the pension plan for new hires in five of the town’s seven bargaining units.
“We won’t see some of those savings for many years, until long after I’m gone, but it’s the right thing to do to set our government up for future stability,” Mezzo said.
Naugatuck also switched to a cheaper health care provider.
“In a heavily unionized environment like Naugatuck is, that’s not always easy to do,” Mezzo said.
Despite the strides he’s made in the past two years, Mezzo said his work isn’t done.
“I don’t think municipalities like Naugatuck can sustain the level of benefits that we have offered the previous generation of municipal employees,” Mezzo said.
Even though he wants to save taxpayers as many dollars as possible, Mezzo said it’s sometimes necessary to invest in certain projects now to save money later.
Such projects include maintaining infrastructure such as roads and buildings and buying new vehicles instead of continuing to repair 20-year-old clunkers.
With Naugatuck’s unemployment rate hovering around 11.5 percent as of March, according to the Connecticut Department of Labor, residents are eager to hear what the town is doing to encourage job growth.
Unfortunately, Mezzo said there’s not too much the town can do. Private industry drives employment based on market analysis and will only create jobs when there’s a demand for it.
The Naugatuck Economic Development Corporation and Economic Development Commission are working to attract more businesses to the town, Mezzo said.
One thing they can do to make Naugatuck more attractive is divide some of the lots in the Naugatuck Industrial Park to make room for more companies, Mezzo said.
Despite the recession, the Naugatuck Industrial Park contributes about $1.8 million in tax revenue to the borough, according to Mezzo.
Naugatuck is also moving forward, albeit slowly, with the Renaissance Place project. The borough was recently awarded a $500,000 state grant to build a parking garage on Parcel C. The garage would be the first step to developing downtown in cooperation with Conroy Development and St. Mary’s Hospital.
Mezzo said that although the borough faces a many challenges, education, which makes up over half the town’s budget, is at the forefront.
Mezzo said the town government and school board need to work together to come up with creative solutions to meet those challenges.
One thing the two could work together on, Mezzo said, is combining some of the business functions of the school board with similar functions at Town Hall to become more efficient.
Examples of areas the Board of Education and town departments could work together on include human resources, purchasing and legal services.
Last year, borough comptroller Wayne McAllister temporarily took over the school board’s business office as the board was facing a budget shortfall. The move was controversial for some members of the school board, who felt it should remain autonomous from town government.
“We are one municipality. The tax dollars don’t come in separately for the Board of Education and the municipal side,” Mezzo said.
Mezzo said McAllister’s work has stabilized the finances and the business office at the Board of Education.
“I think it’s not a permanent solution, but I think going back to having completely separate mindsets is really not only counterproductive, but it really doesn’t reflect the reality,” he said.
Mezzo said he has the utmost respect for school board members who are leaving and he looks forward to working with the new board.
“It’s very different when you sit on the other side of the table,” Mezzo said. “The issues aren’t as black and white as they seem. There are a lot of complexities.”
He said following through with campaign promises for change is harder than it looks.
“As much as people want change before an election, when they actually go to make a change afterword, there’s a lot of fear about it,” Mezzo said.
He said that a good relationship between the municipal and educational sides of the town is not as important as having that relationship yield actual results.
“The real key to improving communication is making that communication translate into positive results,” Mezzo said.
Mezzo called education “Naugatuck’s greatest challenge.”
As the job market changes, Naugatuck’s educational system has to change to reflect that, Mezzo said.
“Our education system has often mirrored our economy,” he said.
In the past, it catered to tasks that were important for industry. Now, education must emphasize the information economy of the present day, Mezzo said.
To ensure that all students graduate with the tools they need to succeed, Mezzo said that some students may need extra help with longer school days or summer classes. He said the school system needs to become more flexible to accommodate each student’s needs.
Mezzo also said the town needs to plan for the long-terms physical needs of the school system. The recently-formed Long Term School Facilities planning committee is looking into what kind of space the schools will need in 10 to 20 years.
In the past, changes to school buildings were reactionary measures to immediate needs, Mezzo said.
“We need to start looking at our district, not in the next two years, but where we want it to be 10, 15, 20 years down the road,” Mezzo said.
The Citizen’s News recently sat down with the mayor to discuss his plans for the next two years. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting portions of his interview online.