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Debate doesn’t ignite sparks

Date: 10/7/2011

Oct. 6, 2011

By Debbie Gardner

Assistant Editor

AGAWAM — There weren’t any real fireworks, but incumbent Mayor Richard Cohen and former State Rep. Rosemary Sandlin did take some quick jabs at each other during the hour and a half mayoral debates at the Roberta G. Doering School on Oct. 5.

Approximately 70 people attended event, which was sponsored by the West of the River Chamber of Commerce and included a debate among the 11 candidates for city council prior to the mayoral debates. Robert McDonald, executive director of the Work Opportunity Center, Inc., served as moderator for the event and Dave Ward, news director for CBS 3 Springfield served as the panelist. The men took turns asking questions of Cohen, Sandlin and the third candidate, Walter A. Meissner III.

Of the three, Messiner was the most subdued, at one point answering the question of why he was more qualified than the other candidates, he answered, “It’s not that I’m more qualified, I just happen to be on the ballot. It’s up to the voters to decide.”

His answers throughout the questioning stressed his lifelong residency and his love of Agawam.

Cohen and Sandlin both presented clear positions on issues such as transparency, accountability, business incentives and economic growth in response to questions posed by the moderators and submitted by audience members prior to the event. Sandlin said she would “put the [town] checkbook on line to make people more accountable.” Cohen stressed that the town’s budgets are already online, and that he maintains an open door policy for residents to ask questions about any issue.

In the area of business incentives and economic growth, Sandlin said she would form a study committee in the first 30 days of her administration to “look for areas to replicate the successful industrial park on Silver Street” and ways to attract more middle retailers to Agawam.

Cohen said he has already been looking into creating a second industrial park behind the Department of Public Works, one that would attract “high end industries such as Microtest.” He said he’s also been working with developers to bring in different types of businesses into the former Food Mart plaza and the Walnut Street tax incentive zone.

To help stimulate the growth of small business, Sandlin said she would put all of the forms necessary for permitting online. Cohen countered that with a two-person IT Department, he felt that would be both time-consuming and costly, and that all the forms and information a new business needs is available in the streamlined permitting booklet his administration created. These booklets can be picked up at town hall or mailed upon request, he added.

The few swipes the candidates took at each other came during the Lincoln-Douglas portion of the debates.

Cohen asked Sandlin about late payment of water bills to Springfield and Agawam, and a late filing of her state taxes, saying “If you can’t manage your own money, how can you manage the town’s?”

The question prompted Meissner to ask “what does our personal business have to do with running the town?” during his turn to pose a question.

Cohen answered that “our personal lives, certainly, when it comes to paying our bills on time, is a reflection of our ability to manage money.”

Sandlin said the late water payments were caused by tenants in Springfield properties she had previously owned running up excessive water bills through negligence. She sold the properties to cover the bills. Her late tax filings, she added, were caused by a glitch in the system.

Sandlin asked Cohen why he had not moved the employee insurance for retirees to the state–suggested Medicare system during his first term in office 12 years ago.

“You could have saved the town $1.7 million annually by changing to the state system,” she said.

Cohen answered that the economy was in a different place 12 years ago, and he felt the system at the time was the best way to provide for the town’s retirees.

Cohen’s final jab at Sandlin came in relation to her 25-year tenure on the Agawam Housing Authority, and some inaccuracies in finances and conditions reveled in a recent state auditor’s report. Sandlin said she was proud of her service to the authority, and her ability to help provide affordable housing to the town’s low-income and elderly residents.

Sandlin’s last salvo evoked Cohen’s claim that Agawam has the lowest tax rate of all the surrounding communities. She produced documents certified by the state which indicated, “13 communities have lower tax rates than us” including the residential rates in Southwick and Northampton and the business rates in Longmeadow.

Cohen countered that he has said Agawam has the lowest “split tax rate,” and that Longmeadow was not a fair comparison, as the town does not have separate tax rates for business and residential properties.

Resident William St. John, who regularly attends candidate debates during election years, told Reminder Publications he felt Sandlin’s answers to the questions about increasing the tax base and attracting new business seemed “more to the point.” Regarding Messinger’s response to Cohen’s question about his qualifications for the job, St. John called it “very interesting.”

Debbie Gardner can be reached by e-mail at

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