Dunn: Keeping That Small Town Feeling

Thomas G. Dunn

Four term incumbent Mayor Thomas G. Dunn is facing his biggest challenge since becoming the first unaffiliated mayor in the state in 2003. Yet, after the passage of a bonding referendum and four budgets in a row approved without any tax increases, he is ready for another two year term. His large homegrown family is helping him out as they always have.. Dunn is the 5th of 11 children – five boys and six girls – all except one of whom still live in town.

“We rode our bikes to EZ Pickens and met up at Bill & Sam’s all the time. We walked all over town back then,” he recalls. The Dunn family is still very close and some of the extended family still meets for a family meal on Sundays. His wife Lisa and he grew up together, meeting in high school and raising a family of two daughters and one son on Pleasant St. His son is a member of Fire Company #3.

Dunn got involved in community life with the rest of his family fairly quickly. Apart from playing football and baseball, he graduated as the Vice President of Wolcott High School Class of 1980. “It was my first election”. Pickup games with other kids and a sense of community among all neighbors typifies what the fifty year old father and grandfather remembers about growing up in Wolcott – and what he hopes it can continue to be.

At a young age, Dunn had an interest in politics. In high school, he joined the fire department and one day bumped into Mayor Ed Wilensky. “He asked if I could introduce him to some of the fire guys, so I did. He was just a nice guy and we all stood in a circle chatting and asking him questions.” He wasn’t much different from his other brothers and sisters in serving the community years later. Kyle was elected by firefighters as their chief in 2000 and his brother Joe co-founded the anti-drug group Crossroads earlier this year. Other brothers and sisters assist with various school and community functions throughout town.

Dunn, a former Democrat, served a few terms on the Zoning Board and Inland- Wetlands before being elected to the Town Council for three terms. Once, the Whisper heard that he often dreamed of becoming Mayor at a younger age. Nearing the end of his first term on the Council, he asked several town officials for advice. “I told him to get some experience under your belt,” says Tax Collector Lorraine McQueen at the time. McQueen is helping Dunn’s opponent this year.

When he was ready, though, he won his election with 52% of the vote in a three way race defeating an incumbent. It was the first time a petitioning candidate won the race for mayor anywhere in Connecticut.

“When I got in there was almost no technology in Town Hall. We had one dial up connection.It took several years to bring everyone up to date.” He notes that the police department only received updated computers both in the department and in cruisers just a couple years ago.

Dunn’s style of governing is fitting for a small town, even as Wolcott grows in size. “It’s a big job but we have good people working here. You have to be a good listener. The door’s always open and people can still often walk right in.” Dunn’s speach is often punctuated by saying “we” – referring simultaneously to himself, Town Hall staff, other elected officials, and the town at large. Perhaps it’s the sports enthusiast in him, or the fact that he was elected without a party. He goes on to say that there’s a phrase that goes ‘you can’t please everyone so don’t even try.’ “I take the last part out. I try.”
One of his early goals when attaining office was to start a youth center in town. A committee was formed within his first year in office starting with holding dances for middle school students. The facility itself took seven years to build, but the committee was persistent, opening in 2010. “Now the building is up and being utilized,” he says of the facility that opened in 2010 behind Frisbie School. He says some more work is needed, but the project is progressing.

Dunn touts improving a number of buildings in town – from school renovations to a communications center as signs that he is able to improve the town’s infrastructure while keeping taxes low. “We’ve completely overhauled the library, put computers in police cars and the detective bureau, and overhauled the communications center.” Dunn asserts the town’s infrastructure has come a long way since when first walked through the door.

It seems that many candidates are taking credit for the town’s stable tax rate for the past four years. Council Democrats credit their budget cutting and oversight authority. Dunn points to more complex numbers. “Check the fuel rates” he told a reporter.

Indeed, the year before Dunn took office, Wolcott was paying a mere 72 cents a gallon for Diesel, 75 cents for gasoline and 65 cents for heating fuel. Each of those costs have multiplied three to five times as much. “We even cut taxes in my first year of office.”

Fiscal Years: 02-03 03-04 11-12
Diesel 0.72 0.88 3.40 /gal
Gasoline 0.75 0.99 3.03 /gal
Heating Fuel 0.65 0.81 3.40 /gal

He points to these figures as a huge impact on the budget. If costs go up, and spending is flat, then something has to give. Dunn says that the financial team in Town Hall took advantage of low refinancing rates in 2010, thereby saving over $1,000,000. “It just happened to be the timing and our financial advisor said it was unusual.” While he credits the saving to luck, Dunn points to his work in combining positions to save money. “One person doing two or three jobs is a lot of money saved.”

Dunn has also been replacing many of the heavy diesel dump trucks Wolcott’s Public Works Dept. has used with lighter gas powered pickups. “Costs of supplies across the board – fuel, insurance, office materials – have continuously gone up, but here we’ve been able to maintain the level of services. We still collect garbage once a week, and our recycling program is continuing to save us money.”

Opponent Challenges Dunn
Democratic Mayoral candidate Steve Olmstead has criticized Dunn for the number of lawsuits brought against the town. His recent ad on page 6 of the Wolcott Community News says that he will reduce the number of lawsuits ‘based on poor decisions’. Dunn acknowledged that there have been lawsuits due to problems at the police department, but “the number of lawsuits have been the lowest in 12 years,” he tells the Whisper. “Most of those problems stem from decisions that were made in the previous administration.” The Whisper has not done an analysis of the number of lawsuits against the town, although they are on file in the Town Clerk’s office.

“A mayor can’t stop someone from tripping over a curb or a fight at a school from occurring. Even with the police department, you cannot micromanage an officer all night and tell him ‘do don’t do that- it might cause a lawsuit.’ He says that such a style would have the opposite effect, tying the hands of town employees from doing their job.

Dunn’s toughest challenge as Mayor was confronting a police department fraught with leadership issues and morale problems. The police chief had been given a lifelong contract by the previous mayor and Council with no expiration date. Dunn requested a state police investigation and after several months, the former police chief resigned. Dunn began rebuilding the department by bringing in Neil O’Leary from Waterbury for two years. Ed Stevens has since taken over the department and is often seen at various functions around town. A new procedure manual has been written and the department has been accredited. Officer morale has improved significantly, a merit based promotion system is finally in place and a new class has officers has since hit the streets.

“I can’t tell you that we’ve done everything not to get sued. But we do try. We have more classes throughout the various (town) departments than ever before. Lawsuits will happen. I don’t like it, but anyone can sue in America. As Mayor if you don’t make a change in town (because your are ) thinking you’re going to get sued, then you’re not doing your job”

New goals
The Whisper asked Dunn whether he has any new goals for the town if he gets re-elected tomorrow. “I hope the economy gets better,” he replied noting it was strictly out of his control.

He cited the work involved with carrying out the most recent bond package which was approved in August. “The Council and I have appointed people to committees to oversee the money, bidding process and follow-through” He notes that the Industrial Park on Town Line and Tosun Roads is a particular area that desperately needs better roads. That area has flooded for many years, and a large project involving both federal and town funding is under way there already. “Then when that’s done we can entice new businesses to come in.”

He has a wish list of projects, but isn’t sure he can do much more in the current recession. “It’s getting tougher to do things without putting an extra burden on the taxpayers. We can’t control the funding we get from the state and federal governments.” He notes a goal he had in 2009 was to build a dog park, yet for various reasons including cost and trying to find the right location, that project has been on hold. “If the economy gets better, it’s possible to build an indoor sports complex at near the golf course. The complex would have something for every interest” Voters approved a land purchase adjacent to the golf course several years ago, however studies came back showing that converting the current 9 hole course to an 18 hole one would be cost prohibitive.

The two storms in Wolcott have presented particular challenges for Dunn. While covering Hurricane Irene, the Whisper learned that Dunn himself as well as the town crew delivered water and food to senior housing complexes that were without power. Last Sunday night, he was seen unloading cots from a trailer for the senior center to be set up as a shelter for residents who lost power.

Dunn declined to attack his opponent who has been on the Town Council for one term thus far. “His goals have already been accomplished. I’ve seen no other plan or alternative to what I’m already doing. He accepted my budget.

Outlook for the town
The recent two storms – Hurricane Irene and the October Nor’easter set Dunn running around town checking on senior citizens and delivering bottled water with the Public Works Department. Last weekend, he was seen unloading cots from a trailer along with Police Chief Ed Stevens, his sister Darlene, and other volunteers. He highlighted small functions around town like a street festival held on the causeway on Hitchcock Lake every year as well as the Grove Beach parade. Kids often ride bicycles, red wagons, and build floats for the tiny parade through the neighborhood.

“Wolcott is a nice town that still has that small town spirit. I just wish we could all slow down every once in awhile and enjoy it,” he says.

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