View from the top: Mallozzi sets goals for new year, reflects on 2014
Published 8:17 am, Thursday, January 8, 2015
Moving back to Town Hall, controlling health care costs and the Police Department's overtime budget, expanding clean-energy initiatives and finding synergies between town and school departments are some of the major priorities on First Selectman Robert Mallozzi's agenda for 2015.
As he enters his fourth year in the town's top job, Mallozzi in a recent interview reviewed some of last year's accomplishments, as well as goals and challenges he foresees for the new year.
A tighter ship
Among a number of accomplishments of which he said he's proud, Mallozzi said the improved status of the town's finances is a highlight of last year.
"I think we leave 2014 in a good enough shape," he said. "We really have our financial ship in order, and that will give us the time, the opportunity and the energy to commit to other long-term projects."
When he first took office in 2012, Mallozzi said he encountered "a pretty big mess in the Finance Department." Officials that year found, for instance, that former First Selectman Jeb Walker was receiving higher pension payments than allowed, a mistake that originated during the tenure of Gary Conrad, the town's former chief financial officer. In the end, the payments amounted to just more than $4,000, which Walker reimbursed to the town.
"It's the first time the town of New Canaan since 2006 has had their audit ready for their auditors in a timely manner. We didn't have to file for an extension," he said. "That's great news because that means that when we go into the budget season, the Board of Finance and the Town Council have a really good idea about what our general fund balance looks like."
New Canaan's independent audit was completed in December for the first time in several years. The previous two audits were finished in April and March, respectively. The auditing firm, O'Connor Davies, found the town's finances have no significant deficiencies or material weaknesses.
"The ship wasn't being run as tight. It is now," Mallozzi said.
This year, two other accomplishments of 2014 are expected to help the New Canaan's finances improve further -- the recently established Audit Committee and the acquisition of a new financial system, Munis. Mallozzi said the system, which is also used by New Canaan public schools, should be fully implemented this year.
A strong supporter of consolidating services with the Board of Education, the first selectman is hoping Munis will be the first step in that direction.
Financial challenges ahead
Among the challenges Mallozzi plans to address this year is the Police Department's overtime budget, which he called "a major concern."
"Their overtime has not shown any kind of improvements over last year," he said, noting that the total number of officers increased by two last year, to 47, and the department purchased a $20,000 scheduling software to better manage the issue.
Mallozzi said the preliminary police budget request, which is yet to be finalized before it's public, is "incredibly high."
On a different note, he said he's proud to have slowed down wage increases for town employees last year and he now plans to focus on health-care costs.
"Health care is going to absolutely strain this community to a degree that is absolutely unsustainable and it's not realistic," he said. "So the next three years, starting with this year, we need to have really serious conversations about the kind of benefits we offer to current employees and to retirees ... It's going to be painful but we need to put that genie back in the bottle."
Other goals for 2015
After almost two years split through several buildings around town, municipal employees will move back to a renovated Town Hall in the summer. Mallozzi expects the move to be staged and completed by July 1.
When the move takes place, many fear the parking deficit downtown will become worse than it is. Last year, New Canaan took what some called a step backward when the town delayed the Locust Avenue parking lot expansion to 2017. Mallozzi appears confident the town will have a parking arrangement with the Red Cross, whose building is adjacent to Town Hall, to help minimize the issue.
He's also hopeful that two major disappointments from last year will turn into good news in 2015. Mallozzi said he believes the New Canaan Post Office will secure a new permanent home this year, and Yankee Gas will begin installing natural gas pipelines by late summer.
Although gas didn't become a reality in town last year, the first selectman pointed out a clean-energy program, Solarize New Canaan, is underway and may result in twice as many local homes with solar panels by April. He also said he wants to take the transition toward clean energy one step further by calling for several town departments to switch their fleet to hybrid and electric vehicles.
"It's great that we're talking solar on the roofs, but it's time for our town to step up," he said.
Mallozzi is widely expected to run for a third term in November, but he prefers not to talk about politics. A Republican, Mallozzi sided with the Democrats, as did two Republican councilmen, when he cast a rare, tie-breaking vote at a Town Council meeting in December to allow the New Canaan Preservation Alliance to nominate Waveny House for the National Register of Historic Places -- a proposal opposed by six Republicans on the panel.
The first selectman said he "never" feels uncomfortable disagreeing with Republicans and has done so "on numerous occasions" when he was a second selectman. As for the Waveny historic designation, Mallozzi described the five-month process that led to the vote as "dramatic."
"We dramatize things that on the surface shouldn't be that emotional," he said, noting that elected officials often talk about the importance of public-private partnerships, such as the one with the NCPA.
"And yet those folks got caught up in this emotionalism, and to me, it just didn't have to be," he added. "We have a school budget that always needs discussion and review, we got the town's budget ... Those are the things (for which) we should be reserving a lot of meetings, a lot of in-depth review and a lot of subcommittee work."