The Roundup has once again sent questionnaires to every local candidate running for public office in this year’s election. In an effort to properly inform voters, their answers are unedited. The goal is to give the candidates the opportunity to offer their thoughts on issues directly to their constitutes. In return, it gives voters the opportunity to formulate their own decisions on what their candidates’ have to say.
Name: Ellen Zoppo-Sassu
Candidate For: Mayor
Occupation: Completing first term as Mayor – City of Bristol
Community involvement: I have been active in various community groups including McCabe-Waters Little League, Bristol Girls Little League Softball, BEHS All-Sports Booster Club, Friends of the Library, St. Joseph Church and For Goodness Sake. For the last 5 years, I have also served as the Host Family Coordinator for the Bristol Blues Baseball, matching summer league college players with host families in the community.
In addition to the four non-consecutive terms I served on the City Council and all those associated committee assignments including Code Enforcement and the Memorial Boulevard Task Force, I also served as Chair of the City of the Bristol’s Cemetery Commission from its inception in 2008 until June 2013. During my tenure, the Commission secured almost $25,000 in private grant funds and in-kind donations to restore the ancient cemeteries, created a management agreement for the city-owned Lake Avenue Cemetery and garnered a national award from the Daughters of the American Revolution.
In May 2017 I received the Bristol Historical Society Volunteer of the Year award. I have previously received the McCabe-Waters Little League Volunteer of the Year Award and the 2015 Special Recognition Award from For Goodness Sake; as well as the Bristol Boys & Girls Club & Family Center “Positive Leadership Unselfish Service” P.L.U.S. Award; and was also recognized by the New Britain YWCA for their Women in Leadership award.
In 2003 I was named to the “Forty Under Forty” list of Who’s Who in the Greater Hartford area by the Hartford Business Journal and was selected as one of the Exceptional Women honorees at the 6th Annual Constance “Connie” Collins event produced by the Queen Ann Nzinga Center as a positive example for the young girls who participate in the center’s youth programs. In 2018, I was one of two ACE Award recipients recognized by the New England Carousel Museum.
Political experience: 1 term as mayor, 4 terms as City Council, various board and commission service over 30 years as well as 2 degrees in Public Administration.
Campaign website: http://www.ellenzopposassu.com
What motivates you to run for office? Name three priorities and how you will achieve them.
I became interested in local government while in elementary school when I would attend city meetings with my dad, who served on the Board of Finance. I remember, even as a 10 year old, wanting to be someone who helped people.
In 2001, I ran for the City Council representing the Second Council District, which marked 6 productive years on the City Council working for issues of importance to working families, seniors and children in Bristol. In that period, the city’s code enforcement initiative was organized, the library was renovated on time and under budget, the City created the TEAM (Tourism, Arts Entertainment and Museums) Committee and 3 city parks were renovated.
Elected to represent the Third Council District in 2013, I served as the Chair of the Code Enforcement Committee which aggressively coordinated a city policy response to the sub-standard housing issues and blight in the City. I also chaired the Task Force to develop a building and construction plan for the re-use of the historic Memorial Boulevard School’s theater.
In 2017 when I was elected Mayor, the priorities included encouraging efficiencies and collaborations among city departments and creating new initiatives such as the Task Force on Opioid Prevention, the Arts & Culture Commission, the Diversity Council and the Senior Tax Relief Committee. The third priority was to balance the financial needs of the present with making sound fiscal decisions for the next 20 years and beyond.
Political discourse on the federal level is increasingly partisan and divisive. What skills and abilities do you have to build collaboration in with legislators who have different views than you?
Luckily, we do not have the severe polarization that exists at the federal level. I have served on the City Council with several Republicans and also chaired commissions with diverse viewpoints. I believe that the ability to listen and respect various viewpoints is critical to success.
There has been some great collaborative initiatives when everyone has common goals. It tends to break down when there are people serving on boards and commissions who don’t have the greater good as their first priority and instead want to make items political. Based on state law, I must have a balanced number of Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters on boards.
I like to ensure that people are “on the right seats on the bus” to ensure that skill sets are being utilized where they are needed most. To date, the majority of citizen volunteers that we have appointed seem to be working out while using this strategy.
Provide some examples where you’ve worked with others of opposite views to achieve a compromise.
Years ago, when I chaired the Ordinance Committee, we introduced a tax relief program for seniors that Councilman Mike Rimcoski thought was too aggressive. I disagreed, so we took it on the road to the Senior Center and a few other places for public hearings and got a lot of push back which led us to abandon the initiative, since while a good thought, the targeted audience did not like the parameters.
Councilman Ron Burns and I co-chaired the TEAM initiative during our shared term and had different philosophies on how to offer financial assistance local non-profits and arts & culture groups. Ron’s model was slightly more involved and asked for a lot of information. In review of the various ways we wanted to collect information and ensure that everyone had an equal chance of applying, we compromised on a streamlined application & reporting process that still ensured the city could be confident in how taxpayer money was being used while not imposing a cumbersome process on volunteer based organizations.
How can you balance city growth with sustainability?
This challenge is illustrated by looking at the City’s economic development program over the last 25 years. Bristol attracted businesses to locate here by offering economic development grants. To date, those businesses, including Otis, Covanta, the expansion of the ESPN digital center, and a variety of manufacturing entities reaped that benefit, and/or an abatement, where they deferred paying taxes for a time period; or paid on an increasing scale. This has allowed Bristol to build a diversified base of tax-paying entities to add to the Grand List, and also shoulder some of the burden as opposed to higher taxes on homeowners.
Our new additions of the Opportunity Zone, Tax Incremental Financing and the emphasis on recruiting the right mix of businesses for the Industrial Parks and Centre Square are important tools that we evaluate daily.
We also created specific funding sources for small businesses and manufacturing entities who need mentoring for a variety of reasons – certifications, succession planning etc. in order to ensure they remain competitive.
We have also taken the time to evaluate some other major trends including employee benefits, especially the ones offered in retirement. In 2018, with the support of the unions, we successfully reorganized the city’s 3 pension funds under one reporting umbrella, saving the city $3.6 million that first year, with an estimated future savings of over $50 million in the next decade alone.
What can be done to improve public safety?
The short answer is to increase the minimum manpower from 122 to 130, which would allow for targeted investment in traffic personnel as well as more officers available to respond to calls and be pro-active with community policing and special patrols. However, that comes with a significant cost that would affect the tax rate. Police are responsible for almost 60,000 calls for service annually. To date, the Police Dept. has attempted to mitigate trends involving car thefts, opioid related crime and internet crime with special patrols, community education and outreach programs.
How will you address the city’s homelessness issue?
The Bristol CARES Committee has been working to analyze the delivery of services to the most vulnerable populations. There are people who are literally homeless, those who are chronically homeless and those who are unstably housed. Some of these are financial, relationship-oriented, and/or mental health/substance abuse related. All of these require different responses especially when youth/children are involved. In Bristol, we are working to better coordinate resources between and among the social service providers n Bristol and the region to create pathways for success and not just temporary fixes for those that are homeless.
What have you done that makes you qualified for Mayor/Council?
I went from being an interested political observer as a young person to pursuing a degree in Political Science from Providence College. Following that, I went on to earn a Masters Degree in Public Administration with a concentration in local and urban government from the University of Connecticut in 1992.
In addition to the policy emphasis that those 2 degrees bring, I gained life experience in various careers including working at the State Capitol for 2 years which has proven invaluable in understanding how the process works so we can leverage dollars back to Bristol; at two Chambers of Commerce where economic development and attracting people to Hartford and New Britain were key priorities; at the Boys & Girls Club where I received an upfront and personal look at the struggles many working families faced; as well as with my work at the Connecticut Pharmacists Association, which has equipped me with expertise on two critical fronts – negotiating prescription drug costs, rebates and premiums as part of the health insurance costs for the City, which is a $9 million line item, and on the front lines of the opioid crisis.
Lastly, the work I have done at the Bristol Historical Society to preserve the City’s history through the restoration of that specific building as well as the importance of our shared history and achievements helped form a foundation of community pride.
What do you plan to accomplish during your first 100 days in office?
As we move into December, the focus will be on evaluating the current budget and where we stand, as well as planning for the budget that will start on July 1, 2020. The city has begun a strategic planning process to review big ticket projects; the Board of Finance has a series of budget workshops, and as part of department head evaluations, we will also be discussing benchmarks within their scope of services.
With the cold weather season, we will also be ensuring that the city’s weather response, both from a logistical Public Works standpoint and for response programs (shelter, fuel assistance etc) are functioning. We will also be gearing up for the state legislative session to ensure we support and oppose bills of impact to Bristol.
How will you help get residents more engaged in city planning and decision-making?
Providing information is key in getting people involved. I have asked that the City website be updated to reflect more information and opportunities for involvement, as well as publishing my weekly calendar on social media, which provides insight into the workings of the office, and has sparked inquiries about how to get involved in certain issues that people see on the calendar. I also think the Youth Cabinet and the Mock elections we are starting at the high schools are important in sparking involvement as well.
In the first term, the City Council and I also filled in the gaps of service where we thought there would be opportunities to increase quality of life. The Arts & Culture Commission, the Diversity Council, the Mayor’s Task Force on Opioids and the Senior Tax Relief Study Committee are examples of this, and brought in dozens of new volunteers. When people feel good about where they live and work, good things happen.