Q&A with Democratic mayoral candidate Lauren Garrett
By Adrianna Lovegrove
Councilwoman Lauren Garrett is a longtime Hamden resident who is in the running to become Hamden’s next democratic Mayor. The primary is on Tuesday Sept. 10 to determine who will be running against endorsed republican Jay Kaye in the general election.
Q: What was it that made you want to run?
LG: We have a lot of financial problems in Hamden and an economy that hasn’t really been growing at all for decades. And I sit on the council and see a lot of continuations of those bad financial decisions and as an engineer I can’t sit there and watch it happen. I’ve got to fix it. I decided to just get into it and try to fix this town so that we can move forward and build an economy that supports Hamden.
Q: When you talk about those bad financial decisions, what are you talking about?
LG: A couple of years ago, Hamden took out bonds, borrowed money, to supplement the pension plan. They borrowed 125 million dollars. To sink into the pension fund and in doing so, they were required to invest in the pension fund with required payments. They’ve been kicking the can down the road on those payments and it’s putting us in a worse position for the pension plan. Any time that you don’t make a payment, it’s going to cost you more later because you don’t see growth in your pension plan that’s invested in the stock market and in other bonds. It’s a safe investment but if you’re not putting more money into it, you’re not seeing that growth. So now we’re actually in a position where we’re actually paying out more than we are putting into our pension because of the payments we have to make to retirees.
In regards to our infrastructure, our budgets are being balanced by not doing infrastructure projects, closing those projects and then using that money to supplement our budget at the end of the year.
Our debt is not being paid off as it should be. So, last year in the budgeting process there was a debt restructure that was done and instead of paying our regular debt payment they restructured over $40 million worth of debt for an interest only payment. So that payment is going up and we incurred more debt just by doing that debt restructure.
So we are adding to our debt. We are deferring infrastructure. And our pension is growing and its liabilities.
Garrett and the current mayor, Curt Leng discussed financial decisions during the first of two debates.
Q: So what is your plan to deal with that if you were to win?
LG: We need to make sure that we are funding our budget appropriately because right now we are in a situation where our fund balance, it’s like what your rainy day fund is, is at .61% of our operating budget. It should be between 6 and 10 percent of our operating budget for a healthy town. We’ve got to budget honestly and we also need to start getting to work on growing our economy so that the economy grows with the town.
When you have an economy that’s flat or declining for a couple of decades, it really hurts mill rate, the taxes and the town. We need to grow an economy that actually supports the rising costs of running the town.
So that is my primary focus. Getting more economic development, bringing more business into Hamden. We really have to work with our partners, like Quinnipiac. We need to work with people who own commercial real estate in Hamden and make sure that we’re putting in businesses that attract foot traffic.
Q: When you talk about bringing businesses to Hamden, what is your strategy to get them here?
LG: Well, we have a couple of tools at our disposal. So, one is a qualified opportunity zone. It’s a federal program that’s designated by census tract. This is the area of southern Hamden, from the border of New Haven, up to Putnam Ave and then from about Fairview to Newholm and this gives us access to money that we can use to develop southern Hamden and make it ripe for businesses wanting to come here.
We have areas of town where we can simply put in some sewers north of Quinnipiac on Whitney Avenue. There are no sewers, so do businesses want to come here and put in septic? Nope. So there are some simple areas where we can put in a simple fix and generate growth.
Q: On your website, you talk about wanting to eliminate the achievement gap. Why is that a priority and how do you plan on getting rid of it?
LG: We want to decrease the achievement gap. Everything we do in Hamden public schools should be to lift test scores for all of our students. We have great programming in our Hamden public schools for kids who are doing very well. AP tests, AP classes that give college credits to kids who pass the test. We’ve got a new engineering program at Hamden High. It’s called HECA, Hamden Engineering Career Academy and there is so much being done for high achieving students, we need to make sure that we are also putting in a lot of effort into making sure that students are coming to school. That we don’t have chronic absenteeism. We need to make sure we are giving students every tool available so that they can learn well in school. Making sure that they’re well fees. Making sure that they’re not going to school hungry. They have the supplies they need for the classroom. Everything we do needs to be about engaging our students and helping them develop into the career or college after school.
Q: You talked about bringing in more diverse teachers because 61% of Hamden students are black or brown. How do you plan on bringing in more representation?
LG: I organized a panel discussion last January about recruiting and retaining more teachers of color and the Board of Education has some really great plans that they have developed since then. Their goal is to get some of their faculty who has a college degree already and put them on a path to getting their teachers certificate while being substitute teachers in our Hamden public schools. So they can be long term subs, they can go through all their professional development training that our teachers go through, while getting their teachers certificate. This can reduce the cost of our subs and it’s a great opportunity for us to encourage the minority faculty that we have already in our schools to have their teaching certificate and teach our kids.
It doesn’t really address the overall percentage of our faculty. It’s a step in the right direction though. I’d also like to see active recruitment of black and brown teachers from HBCU’s and make sure that we are really seeking out these great teachers. I would be more than happy to go on a tour of schools recruiting some teachers for Hamden from schools. But we have to make sure funding is available earlier on in the season.
What typically happens in Hamden is that we don’t really know how many teaching spots we have available for the fall until pretty late in the summer. It’s a lot of last minute hiring and by then people have already made decisions about where they are going to go to school. We have to make sure that we are being more active earlier on in the season.
Q: Quinnipiac and the town of Hamden have always had a rocky relationship. Where do you think that relationship comes from?
LG: Quinnipiac has a new president. That’s more of a clean slate that we’re working with there. I want to make sure we’re coming to the table with an understanding of each other’s goals and each others needs. I know that Quinnipiac wants to be a good partner and invest in Hamden but they want to do it in ways where they can put their stamp on it and say ‘Look what we’ve done for Hamden.’ For Curt Leng to put in his budget that Quinnipiac is going to give $2.2 million, that sets things off on a bad foot. We have to have those conversations in order to have a good working relationship instead of putting it out there in the press, putting it out there is a public document that this is what you’re demanding.
In addition to that, he didn’t attend President Olian’s inauguration. That’s not a good way to start a relationship.
Q: How do you plan on building a stronger relationship?
LG: We need to have good communication. We are sharing goals and needs. It’s in Quinnipiac's best interest to have Hamden in good financial standing as a town. And it’s in Hamden’s best interest to have a vibrant university as part of our town.
Q: You have built your campaign around the promise of financial responsibility. Can you explain what that means?
LG: It starts with a budget. So we need a budget that is honest. An honest representation of what we can expect for revenues and funds, honestly, what we are required to fund. And that’s not happening right now and as a result we are seeing deficits every single year. Last year, it was almost $10 million. And the way that it’s being solved at the end of the year is by not contributing what we should towards the pension as well as taking money that was borrowed to infrastructure repairs, not doing the repairs and then putting the borrowed money into the budget to offset expenses.
Q: Overall, what has surprised you most about the campaign process?
LG: I was in full expectation in the amount of work that it would be. I knew this was going to be full-time, nights away from my family. I guess what was unexpected was maybe negativity. I have been focusing on the issues and focusing on communicating with voters and making sure that I am knocking on as many doors as possible. And I feel like that’s what it’s really going to take to win. I think when you have face to face conversations, there’s more respect in person and social media can just be a little bit nasty so sometimes that’s hurtful.
Q: So speaking of negative. There was a Tesla incident a while ago. A lot people claimed that you endangered the lives of your children. What’s your response to that?
LG: I don’t think that the best decisions were made that night but I think that when people are the victims of crime, I don’t think they’re expected to act perfectly. Women get raped and then take a shower because they feel disgusting and destroy evidence. Are they doing the right thing? How can I judge them for that. There’s a lot of judgment for my family and we’re the victims of crime and I think it’s hard to think about how would you make these decisions. I don’t really like passing judgement on other people when that’s not my experience.
Q: Looking back on the experience, was there anything you would have done differently?
LG: Of course but I’m trying not to victim blame or victim shame myself. I have friends who are mental health professionals who are constantly saying “don’t do that to yourself.” It’s not good for me to do those kind of things to myself. So, of course there are things that I would do differently if I was not a victim of a crime. But I am not concentrating on that. I’m trying to move one and what ultimately was the most harmful for me and my family was the negativity, the judgment and the shaming. My daughter was bullied the next day at school and that was the result of the social media negativity.