BEACON FALLS — Six years have passed since Gerard Smith last sat in the first selectman’s seat. Smith has thrown his hat back in the ring for the town’s top spot; a decision the 58-year-old insurance agent described as a tough one.
“I’m a reluctant candidate,” Smith said.
Smith said he’s been watching what’s been going on in town and chose to run again due to what he feels were poor decisions made, and possibly coming down the road, by the present administration. He pointed to a solar panel array built on town land on Lopus Road between the public works garage and wastewater treatment plant as one poor decision.
The solar panel array, which produces energy the town buys from a third party that installed the panels, was built on land the town used to dump brush and debris. The array has faced criticism for not only taking away the bulky waste dump site, but for taking up land that could possibly be used to expand the wastewater treatment plant.
Smith said he feels it’s time for a change in town.
“I think I bring the leadership, the experience and the non-partisan portion to this,” Smith said.
Smith, who has a high school education and has lived in Beacon Falls for 33 years, served one term as first selectman from 2011 to 2013 and one term as selectman in the mid-2000s. He’s also served as chairman of the Board of Finance and chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission.
Smith was a registered Republican and received the Beacon Falls Republican Town Committee’s backing when he served as first selectman. Before that, he was an unaffiliated voter and he’s once again unaffiliated. Smith is running as a petitioning candidate against incumbent First Selectman Christopher Bielik, a Democrat, and petitioning candidate David Rybinski, a member of the Region 16 Board of Education.
First selectman candidates could win a seat on the Board of Selectmen as a selectman, depending on how the votes shake out on Election Day. When asked whether he would serve as a selectman if he doesn’t win the first selectman seat, Smith said he would make that decision after the election.
If elected first selectman, Smith said economic development will be his top priority.
“That’s the way to bring taxes down, is to raise the revenue, and you’re going to raise the revenue by actively pursuing businesses,” Smith said.
In 2017, the town hired Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC), a nonprofit corporation and public-private partnership that provides research, marketing and economic development services. CERC provides a part-time economic development consultant to work with the town.
Smith said he hasn’t dealt with CERC but is willing to meet and talk with the company about continuing their partnership.
Smith said there’s other avenues to boost economic development in town, including looking into changing zoning regulations to open the town up to different sectors of business. He pointed to regulations that limit the number of stories for buildings in town. He said if the town were to allow office buildings that are 10 or 15 stories high, it could open up the possibility for an office complex in an industrial park in town.
The tax rate has stayed flat the last two years at 35.9 mills following a 3-mill increase in the 2017-18 fiscal year. The increase in 2017-18 was mostly attributed to a 5.12% decrease in the town’s grand list following a property revaluation.
The town budget is separate from the budget for Region 16, which oversees public schools in Beacon Falls and Prospect. School spending has increased just about $200,000 since the 2015-16 fiscal year, and Beacon Falls’ net education cost went down about $150,000 this fiscal year.
Smith said he would take a very hands-on approach with the town budget and hold people accountable. If there’s money left over in a line item, he said, that means it was over budgeted.
Smith said he would focus on capital projects, which have been paid for out of the town’s excess unassigned general fund balance over recent years, and look closely at how much the town is bonding and will look to borrow.
One area the town is looking to bond for is road improvements. The town is facing millions of dollars’ worth of road improvements, officials have said. Officials are working on a 10-year capital plan that includes road work and hired a company to scan town streets to determine their condition to prioritize which ones to repair first.
Smith feels a 10-year plan is too far out and said the plan should focus on the next five years. He said the town could pursue potential grants to help offset the cost for the road work, but that bonding is most likely the answer.
“I don’t know of any other way to fix the roads accept for bonding,” he said.
Smith said there’s different ways to approach it. The town could restructure bonds in place, long-term bonding can be extended and officials could refinance bonds to keep the annual cost affordable.
“There’s lots of options,” he said. “But the roads, bonding is going to be the way to go.”
With Election Day approaching, Smith urged voters to do their own research on him.
“Believe nothing that you hear at your door and everything that you do your own research on speaking to current board members, commission members and town employees to get the true facts regarding Gerard Smith,” he said.