Published in the April 11, 2016 edition.
By BOB BURGESS
WAKEFIELD — The five people running for three selectmen seats up for election April 26 touched on a wide variety of topics at a recent television debate, including how to deal with the business environment downtown, whether to raise property taxes to pay for improvements at Wakefield Memorial High, whether people are already paying too much in local taxes and the degree of transparency in municipal government.
The debate, hosted by WCAT at its studio at the high school April 1, featured incumbent selectmen Phyllis Hull and Ann McGonigle Santos, as well as Daniel Benjamin Jr. of Foster Street, Tony Longo of Fell Street and Garden Lane resident Peter May. Current board member Tiziano Doto is not running for reelection.
Asked what to do to bring more diverse businesses to Wakefield, Benjamin said the selectmen are “on the road to the right future” by establishing the Wakefield Main Street Program. Benjamin urged patience, saying the program’s particulars would take time to bear fruit.
Hull said the board has signed a Community Compact with the state and has secured a grant from the Metropolitan Area Planning Committee to help with the downtown and has committed town money to assessing various market opportunities there. She said the town must continue to work with landlords owning property in the Square, offering tax breaks in return for fixing up buildings or offering reduced rents.
However, she cautioned: “We cannot force landlords to do things they don’t want to do.”
Longo said there are a host of opportunities downtown or nearby to take advantage of. “We have a Lake and have to figure out how to get” the walkers and runners to the downtown, whether it be by advertising banner, kiosk or a specific smartphone applications promoting eateries in Wakefield. He also said financial incentives like no tax increases for three years could be offered to landlords in return for beautifying their properties or bringing different, legitimate business here.
Santos, currently the selectmen chairman, said it may be time for a return of a program where local banks got together to offer incentive loans to businesses already operating here.
Peter May said the situation downtown is a “tough” one because there are so many absentee landlords who are “not motivated” to want to do what is best for the entire area. He said it is important to “knock on doors and talk to them.”
The candidates were asked if the town does enough to try to keep people’s taxes down.
Hull said no, particularly for those with fixed incomes.
Longo cited a recent article in the North section of The Boston Sunday Globe which found Wakefield’s taxes up 25 percent over the last five years. He said ways must be found to develop revenue sources, explaining one being the rehabilitation of the privately-owned Lakeside Office Park.
“Unfortunately,” he said, alluding to the cost of the new Galvin Middle School, “taxes won’t be coming down but some other buildings we paid for will be coming off line,” like the Beebe Library and other school improvement projects.
Santos said the Globe article was a little misleading because all communities mentioned as having big tax increases in recent years are the ones that have approved having major construction projects for upgrading expensive facilities like schools and other public buildings. Santos actually turned the tax issue into a positive, saying Wakefield is one of the “best buys” among towns in the area.
May said officials need to begin addressing schools and businesses downtown and that will not be conducive to bringing taxes down.
Benjamin offered a way to help senior citizens in town would be to split the tax rate to reflect a property tax and then a school tax.
The April 1 debate also allowed for pre-submitted questions from the general public. One asked about the transparency of town government.
All candidates felt Town Hall and the selectmen run government in an open, accessible way. The incumbent selectmen took things a little further, with Santos saying, “Just because you get an answer you don’t like doesn’t mean government is not being transparent.”
Hull said she troubled by people of Facebook and other social media who complain about government transparency and then don’t even know what’s going on in town because they don’t read the local newspaper or attend meetings.
“It’s their own fault if they don’t know what is happening,” Hull said.
The candidates were asked if they supported going outside the restrictions of Proposition 2 1/2 to pay for work at the town’s flagship school.
“Something needs to be at the high school,” Santos said, especially when you consider many students coming from the new Galvin are entering a school that has fewer technological offerings than the one they’re leaving. She did say, however, that she needs more information on the various options available before making a decision on what to do.
At the high end is building a brand new school on Farm Street for about $120 million.
May said the town must begin addressing its school facilities and if it doesn’t being planning ahead the district will lose even more students to private schools.
Benjamin said there are still so many unanswered questions before the town regarding a new high school. “We don’t know anything yet,” he said, including what the town may get for reimbursement from the state.
Hull said there is “absolutely nothing wrong with the bones of the high school.” She said there is wasted space at the school that could be addressed and that certain buildings coming off the town debt books means money could be bonded to do some more work. “We should start planning to use that money,” she explained.
Longo said the science area at the high school has been determined as not up to current code, adding a debt exclusion of Prop. 2 1/2 to address the facility is the “right thing to do.”
The candidates were asked to envision their role on the Board of Selectmen if they are elected on April 26.
May said the board needs “people thinking on their own” while also being part of a team, adding that he would work to address the downtown economic situation with absentee landlords and put some of the grant money the town has for the downtown to use.
Benjamin, miffed at the seeming indifference of some current selectmen, said their “silence in deafening. They’re the last in and the first out. I think you should say something at every meeting,” like Hull does, he said. Benjamin continued that he would ask any and all questions he could think of at board meetings.
Hull gets a lot of phone calls from constituents who want answers, so she said, “Whatever questions I have, I bring” them to meetings. She went on to compliment her colleagues, saying members are great and that Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio “backs me up” completely.
Longo said he would spend time with Maio and utilize his own experience in town government. He would work with Main Street business owners and planned to talk with town employees and all department heads to see how things could be managed better.
Santos, like Hull, complimented her current colleagues on the respect they have for each other, even though they don’t always agree.
On last year’s elimination of the town’s winter parking ban, the candidates were split.
Hull voted to do away with the ban, which allows people to park their cars on the street overnight during the winter.
Longo would have upheld it.
Santos voted against the ban.
May said he was opposed to getting rid of it.
And Benjamin said he would have voted to keep it in place.
The candidates were given the opportunity for a closing statement at the April 1 debate.
Following are snippets from each one.
Benjamin: The town, he said, needs a permanent police officer dedicated to the downtown area. The downtown must be modernized, and “eyesore storefronts” must be eliminated. The Greenwood fire station should always be open. More tax abatements should be given to senior citizens. More housing for seniors should be found. There should be a lottery system for second water meters. All public buildings need to be maintained.
Hull: A resident since 1960, she has been a very visible and outspoken resident for the past 25 years in the fight against higher taxes. She served on the town’s most recent Charter Commission and helped codify the town’s bylaws. “There is no issue, question or concern” that is too small to bring before the selectmen, she said. Hull led the effort to restore the World War II monument on the Veterans Memorial Common. In general, she said she provides a “voice” for the citizens of Wakefield.
Longo: A longtime Recreation commissioner, he has served in a time where revolving funds for Recreation programs have risen from $15,000 in 2009 to $95,000 last year. He said the town needs someone to move forward with new revenue and growth programs for the town, and he is that person. He also said the town needs to continue its fight against the current opioid crisis hitting our area.
Santos: The former assistant DA and Board of Health member has seen first hand how Wakefield comes together. “This town has a tremendous heart,” she said. “It picks people up and surrounds them with their love.” She continued that the town has had so many successes in the past three years, including the continued regionalization of departments that has saved money and the ability to add $2 million to deal with the town’s capital needs each year.
May: He has the “energy, time and passion” to help solve the problems facing Wakefield today. He wants to bring a more diverse business climate to town, adding it “shouldn’t take a year to get a sign approved or a canopy rebuilt over your gas tanks.” He also said the town badly needs to address its schools and improve them.”
The selectmen’s debate is scheduled to air regularly on WCAT stations right up until the April 26 election. Check the WCAT website for day and time.
Those working on the broadcast were: Producer David Watts Jr.; Associate Producer Tom Stapleton; Director/Technical Director Scott Kurland; Audio, Ryan Boyd; Graphics, Scott Kurland; Camera: Joe Puleo, Jenna Sanchez and Hayleigh Walker.