Lyme's BOF contests stand out in otherwise quiet election

·7 min read

Oct. 17—LYME — The two contested races on November's election ballot reflect the one source of upheaval in this year's otherwise peaceful budget planning process.

Only the current Republican-dominated Board of Finance has generated any competition, with two open seats for full, six-year terms and one opening for a six-year alternate.

Democrats endorsed two candidates for the full seats and Republicans endorsed one. Due to staggered terms, the winners will join three Republicans and one Democrat. One Republican and one Democrat-endorsed candidate are running for the alternate position.

In a contentious move earlier this year, the Board of Finance lowered the open space reserve fund goal from $1 million to $500,000 despite vocal opposition at a remote public hearing. Open space advocates spoke about the town's demonstrated history of preserving open space and the continued importance of putting the town in a strong position to buy more property. Opponents argued the town should not be keeping that much taxpayer money in reserve.

More than 50% of land within the town's borders is permanently protected from development.

When the finance board's budget went to the annual meeting for a vote by eligible taxpayers in May, the Board of Selectmen added to the agenda a resolution addressing open space going forward. The resolution directed the finance board to "take all measures" to reach $1 million in the 2022-23 budget plan, and replenish the fund "in a timely fashion" whenever it is used to purchase property. Voters at the meeting endorsed the selectmen's plan 202 to 10.

Candidates for the full, six-year terms are political newcomer Alan Sheiness, the unaffiliated candidate endorsed by the Democrats, and two current alternates: Republican Bruce Anderson and Democrat Robert House.

Sheiness, who will be 64 by Election Day, retired in 2015 as a corporate controller with more than 30 years of experience from ADP Inc., an international human resources company. He serves as co-founding director and treasurer of PALS, a New York-based nonprofit that arranges free flights for medical or humanitarian needs via a network of volunteer pilots. He is also the treasurer of the Lyme Land Trust and chairman of its Finance Committee.

A Lyme resident for 10 years, Sheiness is married with three grown children.

He said he worked in several different states and in Paris, France, during a career that evolved from general management to executive leadership.

"Being in all these different roles in different parts of the country in different parts of the world creates a sensitivity and an awareness about listening, about working with empathy, while discharging your duties," he said.

Sheiness described it as noteworthy that the finance board made a decision "so counter to the will of the people" when it reduced the open space savings target in the current budget.

"That might be an opportunity to understand how that kind of disconnect could come about," he said.

When it comes to development, he described the status quo in town as "enviable."

He said being able to provide services residents need at the current mill rate without much commercial development, and with the current amount of open space, "is quite a positive place to be."

Lyme has the lowest mill rate in New London County and the 15th lowest mill rate out of 169 cities and towns.

Anderson, 61, is a vice president of business development and sales analytics for Traveler's Insurance. He has a master's degree in finance from the University of Connecticut and a bachelor's degree in economics from Colby College in Maine.

He has been an alternate on the finance board for three years. Other volunteer roles include the Florence Griswold Museum's investment committee, vice president and treasurer of the Old Lyme Beach Club, and a member of the board of directors of the Frederick T. Crosby Education Foundation, which supports the Crosby Fund for Haitian Education.

Anderson and his wife moved to Lyme five years ago from Essex. The couple has two grown children.

He said the biggest financial concern in town is good stewardship of the education budget in collaboration with the regional Board of Education. "From there, it's really just working through the budgets as they're presented by the selectmen and ensuring that we provide proper oversight and management and come up with a budget that we feel good about presenting to the town and that translates to the property taxes and keeping those as stable as we possibly can," he said.

Anderson said finance board members need to scrutinize all capital accounts — not just the open space reserves — "and to make sure that money is used properly or should be returned to the taxpayers."

He described a level of rigor that involves forming quantifiable goals instead of an "arbitrary" figure. In the case of open space reserves, that means creating an inventory of properties that are or might become available and identifying other funding sources like the Lyme Land Trust, the state and the Nature Conservancy to determine what the open space target should be.

Anderson was seated for an absent member during the finance board budget vote, during which he came down in favor of the spending plan and its attendant decrease in open space funding.

"The board has a responsibility to understand and be responsive to what the community wants," he said. "It also has a responsibility as stewards of the town's finances to manage that prudently. Hopefully those don't come into conflict, but sometimes there needs to be a healthy discussion in that regard."

House, 72, is a retired economist who spent most of his career with the US Department of Agriculture in areas ranging from Latin American development to agriculture policy to climate change mitigation.

He and his wife moved to Lyme in 2016 from the Washington, D.C., area. The couple has one daughter and two grandchildren.

House is finishing his second year as a finance board alternate.

"In terms of economics, there's some scale problems with being a very small unit," he said, describing impacts in areas ranging from staffing to equipment procurement to policies and procedures.

"Accounting software isn't necessarily discounted just because your population is 2400," he said. "So it's quite expensive if you're a small town. If you're a bigger town, you have more of a budget to absorb that."

He said he was impressed with resident support of the decision to join Ledge Light Health District in 2018. The regional public health agency serves East Lyme, Groton city and town, Ledyard, New London, North Stonington, Old Lyme, Stonington, Stonington Borough and Waterford.

House, an alternate who was not seated when the finance board voted on its budget this spring, said he "unfortunately didn't have any way to do anything" about the finance board's decision to cut the open space reserves target in half.

"I think it's important for town officials to operate according to the wishes of the residents and the community," he said. He referenced groups like the Lyme Land Trust and Open Space Commission that he said were not consulted and did not have input into the change.

"I think there's a strong case for the target that the community set," he said. "The community was kind of brought together and unified on that issue."

On the ballot this Nov. 2 are: First selectman: Steven Mattson (cross endorsed); Selectmen: John Kiker (D) and David M. Lahm (R); Board of Finance: Bob House (D), Bruce Anderson (R) and Alan Sheiness (U); Board of Finance alternate: Jim Miller (U) and Tom St. Louis (R); Board of Assessment Appeals: John Kiker (D); Planning and Zoning Commission: Phyllis Ross (D) and David Tiffany (R); Planning and Zoning Commission alternate, six-year term: Anne Littlefield (D); Planning and Zoning Commission alternate, four-year term: Frederick Gahagan (U); Planning and Zoning Commission alternate, two-year term: Mary Stone (D); Zoning Board of Appeals: Fred Harger (D) and David M. Lahm (R); Zoning Board of Appeals alternate: Toni Phillips (D); Library Directors: Mary Stone (D) and Laura Mooney (D) and Regional Board of Education: Anna James (D).

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