In a wide-ranging political debate that came back often to the struggling economy and the importance of job creation, Branford's incumbent state Sen. Ed Meyer (D-12th District) characterized Republican challenger Cindy Cartier as a job-jumping political climber who puts herself forward as a fiscally responsible small business owner who believes government does not do enough to help business.
Instead, Meyer told a sometimes hostile crowd of debate watchers at Madison's Memorial Town Hall Wednesday night, the Cartier's family-owned business has paid its business taxes late and was the subject of a tax lien. He questioned her assertion that government does not do enough to help small businesses by saying her family's own company has taken advantage of government largess to grow and expand.
Meyer, speaking forcefully and brandishing time-stamped records from the town of Branford, said those records show that the business run, first by Rich Cartier, and later by both Rich and Cindy Cartier, was delinquent in paying taxes to the town and has had a lien filed against it by the town. Those assertions were confirmed Thursday by Branford Tax Collector Joanne Cleary, who said the business has paid taxes late at least five times since 2000 and at one point had a tax lien against it, filed by the town.
Cindy Cartier said Thursday that the tax problems occurred when her husband was running the business.
Mechanic's lien for almost $240,000
Meyer also said the business, formerly a gas station operated under the name Richael Properties Inc., and which is now operated as New England Car Wash at 379 East Main Street in Branford, had a mechanic's lien "slapped" against it because at one point the business for a period of time was unable to pay "almost $240,000 for services rendered at the site." Meyer said the bill was later paid and the lien lifted.
Meyer, at several points having to raise his voice against catcalling and jibes from members of the audience sympathetic to Cartier, also took issue with Cartier's stance that government does not do enough help businesses.
"It's an odd sentiment for a small business owner who received almost half a million dollars in the form of a small business loan from the federal government in 2008 during the worst economy in the last 70 years," Meyer said during the debate.
The debate featured Meyer and Cartier, who are battling to represent the 12th District, which includes Branford, Durham, Guilford, Killingworth, Madison and North Branford. Also featured in the debate were incumbent state Rep. Noreen Kokoruda (R-101st Assembly District) and her challenger Democrat David Dwyer. The 101st Assembly District includes Madison and part of Durham.
The debate was attended by several dozen area residents, some of whom angrily took Meyer to task for his assertions, and others who applauded him after he made his remarks. The debate was ably moderated MPOA Secretary Bob Maloney, who had to firmly counsel the audience several times to simmer down.
"No fisticuffs!" he remarked congenially at one point, after the candidates and audience took a short break for cider and goodies, and were about to reconvene in the second half of the debate.
Kokoruda says "Ed, shame on you"
One of those who challenged Meyer on his approach was Kokoruda.
"Ed, shame on you," Kokoruda said. She later characterized her own debate opponent, Dwyer, as "delightful."
Kokoruda challenged Meyer, who said Cartier's tax problems dated back to 2005, by saying that the car wash business opened in 2008.
Her comment brought applause and cheers from some audience members.
But the Cartiers said after the debate that the family-owned business was a gas station before becoming a car wash and that they did own it in 2005. Cartier's website say the gas station business opened in 1997. The Cartiers were married around the same time the gas station business was opened.
Cindy Cartier said Thursday that, prior to 2008, the business was owned soley by her husband and that she became a partner in the business in 2008.
Cartier says Meyer's assertions are a "sign of desperation," blames Branford for mistake
Cartier said during the debate and afterwards that Meyer's accusations were a sign of desperation. She and her husband, Rich, challenged Meyer's assertions Wednessday night by saying that the lien was the result of a mistake on the part of the town. They said the town incorrectly asserted that the car wash had one more bay than it did and that the tax problems were the result of the town incorrectly charging them too much in taxes as a result. They said they ultimately prevailed and were given a refund by the town.
"It's kind of sad," Cindy Cartier said with indignation during the debate. She characterized her relationship with Meyer, prior to the debate, as friendly.
"He must be desperate." She said during the debate that the tax problems were a result of a mistake by the town, that the town "inappropriately gave us an extra bay in the car wash. It took us six to eight month" to work it out, she said. Cartier said that the assessor's office "will tell you we were not delinquent."
Branford tax collector says taxes were paid late, lien was filed
But Branford Tax Collector Joanne Cleary said Thursday morning that taxes on the business were paid late and that a lien was filed against the business by the town.
She said taxes on the business were paid late in the second half of 2002, the second half of 2004, in 2005 when the lien was filed, in the first half of 2006, and in both halves of 2007.
She said that if property owners challenge an assessment, that they were still required to pay at least a portion of the bill, according to state statute.
State law requires you to pay
"When you have something under appeal, when you are appealing an property assessment, that state requires that you pay. If the assessment is over $500,000 you must pay 90 percent. If the assessment is under $500,000, which this property was, you pay 75 percent of the tax," Cleary said. In 2005, the second half of the bill was not paid on time and that delinquency eventually resulted in a lien that appears, according to town hall records, to have been released by July 1, 2008.
Cleary said the bill did appear to have been cleared up within about six to eight months, and she said she was not sure why it took so long for the lien to be lifted. She said it may have been due to the fact that a small amount, under $2, still had not been paid, but she said she was not sure about that.
Meyer, challenged by some of Cartier's supporters Wednesday night, insisted he wasn't making it up.
"I have records ... and the record speaks for itself," he said Wednesday night, waving them in the air in front of him. "I would be happy to withdraw my comments if the tax collector says it did not happen. It shows taxes were delinquent for thousands of dollars including penalties."
"Off his rocker"
Documents provided by Meyer following the debate show that the 2005 tax bill for the business was the subject of a lien, with taxes due in the amount of $3,990.78. A handwritten note says it was "released" on July 1, 2008.
Cartier said following the debate that there was no delinquency and that Meyer was "off his rocker."
"The issue was with how they assessed the property," she said, referring to the town. "We were delinquent because they were in the process of assessing it ... they [town officials] make a mistake." She said the taxes were later adjusted by the town of Branford. "Often there are disputes between parties and the town was wrong," she said.
Thursday she said the business was her husband's prior to 2008, when she became partners in the business.
U.S. Small Business Association loan for $495,000 helps Cartier business expand
Rich Cartier said following the debate Wednesday night that the family-owned business at one point did receive a U.S. Small Business Association loan of about $495,000.
He also said the business did at one point have a mechanic's lien against in in the amount of about $210,000 related to a construction project, while the business was transitioning from a gas station to a car wash, and the project was stalled by environmental problems.
He said the environmental problems, which occurred after tests showed that part of the property was contaminated and had to be cleaned up, caused a delay of about six months, which created unexpected problems with the financing of the project.
Site now "100 percent clean"
Rich Cartier said the environmental problems were ultimately resolved and that the site is now "100 percent" clean.
Cindy Cartier said the site was deemed clean in the 1980's, but that some of the dirt on the property was found to be contaminated as it was being removed during the construction process when the business was changing over to a car wash.
As a result of the environmental problems, the banks were not willing to provide additional money for the project, which became more expensive as a result of having to clean up the problems, she said. "So we had to come up with more money," she said. "The contractors did not know we would ultimately be able to pay" so there was a lien. "Mechanic's liens are often found on construction projects."
Company also taps into DEP Superfund program, Cartier says
Cindy Cartier said she and Rich had hoped to tap into a "great DEP Superfund program" that would have provided financial help in cleaning up the site. She said they got all of their bills together in 2009 and that they were awarded money after a hearing. But then the money became unavailable, she said, because legislators "swept" the accounts due to financial problems relating to the budget.
"We got the money in 2011," Cindy Cartier said. "Senator Meyer voted in 2009 to sweep the accounts. So we had to wait two years to get the money."
Rich Cartier said the company ultimately received about $150,000 in reimbursement for the environmental clean up, and that the money was used in part to open a second location for the business. The company opened a second location in Waterford in 2011, according to Cartier's website.
Sweeping of accounts was alternative to raising taxes
Meyer, when asked at the issue relating to the sweeping of the account, said he was not sure why or how that affected the Cartiers. He said that his recollection is that in 2008 or 2009 that Gov. Jody Rell, scrambling to deal with a large deficit in the state coffers, moved various funds from different accounts into the state's general treasury.
"She swept the accounts so that she would not have to raise taxes," Meyer said. "The alternative would have been to raise taxes."
This past year, by contrast, Gov. Dannel Malloy opted to raise taxes instead when faced with a deficit. The state's high tax rate has been criticized by many politicians in both parties, including Cartier.
"I talked with him about this issue over coffee"
Meyer said he was not sure exactly how the sweeping of the accounts in 2008 or 2009 affected the Cartiers. He said the company that did the environmental remediation on the gas station property was not paid for a period of time, and so filed a lien in Branford for about $240,000.
Cindy Cartier said she knew that Meyer knew about the issue relating to the Superfund reimbursement. "I talked with him about this issue over coffee," she said.
One of her supporters, standing with her following the debate, said Meyer's comments "sounded like desperation."
Cartier supporter characterizes Meyer's statements as "reprehensible"
"It's reprehensible to misrepresent things the way he did," said Lou Iorio.
Also during the debate, in addition to attacking Cartier's reputation as a small business owner, Meyer took issue with her work and political record, saying she was "job jumper" and a "political climber" who took one office just to jump to the next one. He said Cartier told a prominent area Republican that her goal, after being elected senator, was to be appointed to a judgeship.
"This prominent Republican told me it was such a cynical view that he would not support her," Meyer said, again drawing jeers and catcalls from Cartier's supporters.
Moderator Maloney implores audience to behave
Maloney, the moderator, again implored the audience to behave.
Members of the audience, and Cartier, asked Meyer to identify the prominent Republican. Meyer said he did not know if the Republican wanted his name to be used and that he would check. If it was OK, he said, he would release the name.
Cartier disagreed with Meyer's characterization of her record as being a political climber. She said, instead, her government service is a solid record of evolving from one position into another. "I choose to serve on different boards" to help solve a variety of problems and to gain a variety of experience, she said. She said during the debate that "it wouldn't be her choice" to be a judge.
Time to wrap it up
Maloney asked the crowd whether they thought the debate should continue, or whether it was time to wrap it up. "This is just getting good," he said. Several members of the crowd said they thought it was time to wrap it up.
During their wrap-up, the candidates touched on many issues but most came back to the issue of the faltering economy, the painful problem of job losses and the difficult climate for businesses.
Cartier again defended herself against the charge of being a job-hopping political climber by saying that most people would find her wide range of experience as a worker and volunteer on political boards as a solid positive.
Cartier says her experience is wide ranging and a positive
Her experience is, in fact, wide ranging. She has been a secretary, a receptionist, an aerobic instructor, a law clerk, a private practice lawyer, a trial attorney for an insurance company, a business owner, senior trial counsel for another insurance company, and an assistant general counsel at another insurance company. She also is a certified yoga and fitness instructor who has taught at In-Shape Fitness.
Her political experience includes the Board of Education, the Board of Selectmen, and Planning & Zoning Commission in Guilford.
"I have to take issue with the job-jumping claim," she said. "I have fourteen years of local government experience. I consider it evolving into different boards. I choose to serve on different boards. It wouldn't be my choice to be judge. It's absolutely not somthing I'd be looking to do."
"The full flavor of the differences between us"
Meyer said in his closing statement that he brought up the issues he did "because I just wanted you to get the full flavor of the differences between us."
He said he, like the other candidates, is very concerned about the economic climate in the state, a concern that was excerbated recently when he learned his own son was unwilling to move back to Connecticut in part because of the business climate. His son started a business and took it to Texas, Meyer said. "That was a wake-up call to me," he said.
Cartier said during her closing statement during the debate that she believes she's the best candidate to turn things around in Hartford.
"Our district deserves more"
"Sen. Meyer didn't start the problem, but he didn't help it," she said.
She said she thought Meyer's focus on the environment has blinded him to problems related to how hard it is to do business in the state.
"Our district deserves more than a one-issue senator who is resorting to desperate tactics." She said her goal is to get elected and make Connecticut a more business-friendly state.
Editor's note: This story was changed Thursday at 4:39 p.m. to clarify Cindy Cartier's ownership position in the family-owned business. Cartier said Thursday that the gas station business was owned by her husband, Rich, and that the car wash business, opened in 2008, was owned by both of them.