Among the priority items, education, economic development and the environment were considered to be critical issues for the next town council, as will pensions for those in both the municipal system and the state plan.
Early in the conversation, Bristol resident Gary Watrous wanted to know how the candidates would keep the schools adequately funded in light of the state’s continued cut back in education aid.
“This is not going to be an easy solution,” said Diana Campbell, a current member of the school committee. “The budget at the town level has a lot to do with economic development. What I propose is to improve our economic development to offset the burden on property owners.”
Anthony Murgo wasn’t as eager to let the town make up for what the state took away.
“A big problem is the unfunded pension liability in the state of Rhode Island,” Mr. Murgo said. “As the unfunded liability grows, it’s up to our state legislators and council to fix that mess.”
Until the financial health of the state is on a more positive turn, Mr. Murgo is less optimistic for economic viability.
“There’s not going to be any economic development. Who’s going to want to come here?” he said.
When Mr. Murgo and Ms. Campbell were later asked for specific ideas they would bring to “help confront the budget issues,” Ms. Campbell reiterated her desire to spark economic growth.
“There are many start-up businesses looking for a place to start up,” she said.
She expressed her frustration with the town’s department of economic development for not being more visible. She would work more closely with that department to conduct market studies and surveys. Mr. Murgo would like to see more emphasis placed on attracting larger businesses to town.
“I see what happens with businesses. It’s all good during the summer months. If there was ever a way to bring manufacturing back to town, the opportunity is here. It’s just a tough economic climate,” he said.
Even if businesses wanted to open in Bristol, said Nathan Calouro, in his view some of the barriers come from local regulations. And if not with the regulations, then with the regulators.
“There’s a mentality with some of the boards. It’s not friendly for business. It’s not friendly with residents,” Mr. Calouro said.
Other candidates, Steve Brigidi and Halsey Herreshoff, suggested the Bristol golf course as an opportunity where the town should develop an industrial area.
“I want to take it back,” Mr. Brigidi said. “I’d like to put together a plan and dedicate that area for industrial use.”
Recently, the council explored the development of the Bristol golf course only to find that due to the funding source of the land that it must remain open space. Even with that understanding, Mr. Herreshoff still supported the idea of developing the golf course.
“The lawyers said we can’t do it. But lawyers always say ‘no’,” Mr. Herreshoff said. “Don’t let the naysayers stop us.”
Encouraging industrial growth is an area that, in Michael Cabral’s view, has not been optimized. He relayed a missed opportunity over two years ago when a bio-tech firm was looking to set up operations in nearby Fall River, Mass.
“I thought Bristol would have been the best spot,” he said.
The business wasn’t pursued and the opportunity was lost.
“I will keep my ear to the ground,” he said.
While candidates suggested ways to spur economic growth, candidate Ethan Tucker suggested finding efficiencies to induce savings, an option he said he’d already explored through National Grid, to trim the town’s $900,000 annual utilities budget. The town, Mr. Tucker said, can “immediately cut $100,000.” He did not elaborate on where or how that savings would be realized.
According to information presented by Mr. Murgo, the town of Bristol currently spends $17.6 million per year to its pensioners. Funding those current pensions is a concern to him.
“That’s almost equal to the school budget. There’s truth in numbers,” he said.
When asked by resident Beverly Larson what the town was currently doing to stabilize pension liabilities, Ms. Parella was optimistic about the town’s status.
“We’re still putting in substantially more than other communities,” she said of the town’s ability to fund its obligation. “We’ve been very fortunate with a few people in a small pension.”
The recent proposal by the police union to shift its pension from the state to the town could change the dynamic of the municipal pension system, a proposal that is of concern to Ms. Parella.
“I think people need to keep an eye on that,” Ms. Parella said.
While no one spoke out against protecting the environment, only a few spoke of the financial opportunities in protecting the environment. Financial gains are already evident, Mr. Tucker said, pointing to the $37,000 profit sharing bonus the town received from the RI Resource Recovery Corporation.
“If we can triple that,” he said, “that could (fund) a line item in the school budget.”
Ms. Campbell agreed.
“It pays to recycle — literally. We’re moving in the right direction,” she said.
Those gains are possible, Mr. Herreshoff agreed.
“We have all the mechanisms here. We need to better utilize the facilities we have,” he said.
In addition, Mr. Herreshoff also made reference to a Barrington ordinance that bans the use of plastic shopping bags in that town.
“Eliminating plastic bags is a great idea,” he said. “Let’s look at the whole recycling business.”
The candidates also discussed the importance of encouraging citizens to take part in civic matters.
“Bristol is very strong in volunteerism. We really have one of the best volunteer cultures I ever heard of,” Mr. Herreshoff said.
To continue that culture, he suggested that the town doesn’t simply ask for volunteers, but “clarify problems that will bring people forward.”
Ms. Campbell, who when first asked to volunteer didn’t know how to get started, gave her advice on how to motive volunteerism.
“Open the doors wide and push them in,” she said.
Before each candidate was invited to give a closing remark, they were asked to tell, in their view, what the most pressing issue would be for them over their two-year term.
Michael Cabral: Infrastructure.
“Education and economic development won’t happen without a strong infrastructure. That needs to be paid close attention to.”
Mary Parella: Fire suppression on Poppasquash and other areas; pensions
Halsey Herreshoff: School funding.
“We’ve got to try to make peace with Warren.”
Edward Stuart: “Every issue is a priority issue.”
Steve Brigidi: Education.
“Without a strong economy we can’t fund education.”
Ethan Tucker: Economy.
“Economic development is the number one issue.”
Diana Campbell: “Education, education funding and economic development. They go hand in hand.”
Nathan Calouro: Economic development.
“It does come down to money.”
Anthony Murgo: Infrastructure, namely, flooding viewed as an economic loss and a risk.
“This has been an ongoing problem.”
Greg Raposa: An Independent candidate who lists himself as being a “Vigilant Fox,” listened quietly through most of the forum before giving his advice. “You have to back away from party politicians. There is an opportunity to vote five Independent candidates and an Independent town administrator.”
John Francis IV: “Put business and common sense to work for you.”
New look for council
The forum was presented by Marina Peterson, a member of the Tea Party who heads a government watchdog group, the Bristol Patriots. Ms. Peterson credited the candidates for participating and accepting questions directly from the audience, rather than from a list of scripted questions.
With three current members of the town council seeking higher office — Ken Marshall for state representative in district 68, David Barboza and Antonio Teixeira vying for town administrator — the field for town council includes only two incumbents, Republican candidates, Halsey Herreshoff and Mary Parella.
“This election could dramatically change the objectives in Bristol,” Ms. Peterson said.