Report by Paula Antolini
October 31, 2017 7:22AM EDT
OPINION / LETTER TO THE EDITOR
‘A Tale of Two Bethels’ — Letter to the Editor from Cynthia McCorkindale
October 30, 2017
There is one that likes to ride bike paths, try new micro beers, promote solar energy, and eat out regularly at the plentiful Bethel restaurants. Then there is the Other Bethel – the Bethel where seniors struggle to pay their bills, where one or both wage-earners have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced, where children are being raised by one parent and, those who, when faced with a car repair, have to take the bus until they can save or borrow enough cash to pay for it. These two Bethels are so disparate, they should have two names.
So I named them. I call the more affluent one “Bethchester.” I call it that because of the posts I frequently read on Facebook by people who moved here from Westchester and marvel at the low taxes and how cheap it is to live here. Well, if you were to talk to some of the people who live in the Other Bethel, they might not agree.
So, how did this happen?
Not that long ago, Bethel was just a small, New England town, comprised mostly of tradesmen, farms, artists, and family-run businesses. It had a small footprint and kept a low profile. Housing was affordable. Taxes were reasonable. Bethel had a small but lively downtown area, a wooden train station, and, compared to surrounding towns, was known for its slightly offbeat, eclectic style. The descendants of many of Bethel’s founding families – the Benedicts, Hawleys, Judds and Hoyts – still lived here. The people of Bethel were resourceful. They didn’t need a robo call from the First Selectman at 11:30 at night to tell them that the wind was blowing, or to stay clear of electrical wires. They just knew.
The Bethel I’ve lived in for the past thirty years is chill. We’re interested in very simple things that don’t cost a lot of money. We’re imaginative. We find out-of-the-way places in nature, and old trails hidden in Terre Haute. We collect firewood and watch salamanders migrate to their vernal pools. We drink strong coffee. You see, my Bethel is much more comfortable sitting at the Sycamore dressed in work shirts and jeans than a business suit texting on an iPhone 12.
This doesn’t mean we can’t all co-exist. It just means that decision-makers need to take us more into consideration.
For the past eight years we have been herded toward endless, massive, expensive, tax-burdening projects that 1) the tax base isn’t at all ready for and 2) have not been fully studied for future impact and 3) are just not appropriately scaled for Bethel.
With all the residential construction and the new businesses that the current First Selectman brags about, you’d think we’d be getting more for our tax dollar. But we are not. We’re not because those who are currently making all the decisions really don’t understand the Other Bethel.
Here’s an example – The Solar Farm. Yeah, it’s cool. Yeah, at some point it might even save us money. But Bethel is a small town. Why is it up to us to sponsor cutting edge technology so we can impress the world? Rest assured, some corporation is making a big profit as we careen towards green.The police station. Yes, we need a police station. But the one under construction now is far beyond anything we’ve ever seen and grander than any of the immediate surrounding, more affluent towns have or plan. Our current First Selectman can’t resist making a deal, signing a contract, or getting behind some big, sexy construction project that fits his idea of what Bethel should be. And, based on how little he understands about the Other Bethel, his actions would appear to be more about his own vision and legacy than serving the entire Bethel community.
I think the launching point may have been the library referendum in 2000. Interestingly, the traditional library model became obsolete the second the Internet came on the scene. However, we moved forward with the construction of a standard library. Why? So children could come sit down and have someone read them a story? It’s very nice, but it doesn’t generate revenue. It costs the taxpayers over $800,000 a year just to run the library. The Friends of the Library sponsor only one fundraiser each year – wine and cheese – which nets about $2500. That’s it. And, I’ve wondered (and asked) for many years why the school libraries are not networked with the town library – there must be hundreds of duplicate books and resources. Our town government simply does not maximize potential that is sitting right in front of them. Instead we build and buy, buy and build.
Here’s what I think – that when all the major decision-makers live in Bethchester, it doesn’t occur to them – or maybe even matter to them – that at least 30% of the taxpayers do not have the same financial leeway as they do. The Bethchesterites can easily absorb the several hundred-dollar a year increases to their taxes, because their financial stability allows them to do so.
This is key: Bethchester’s influence and incomes shield them from the detrimental effects of their own ideology.
So, Bethchester chugs along and everything looks fine. But it has become a weird sort of Potemkin village. Behind the giant façade of the library and the copper cupola on top of the police station (if it hasn’t already been cut from the design) is the Other Bethel with front porches that need to be fixed, mortgages that are delinquent, and the overwhelming sadness that comes with knowing that time is not on your side. I submit that many voters in the Other Bethel are just plain worn out and believe that their vote doesn’t even count anymore.
So, what is the solution? Be the right size for who you are. Bethel is Bethel. Bethel is not Ridgefield. It’s not Westport. Bethel’s small town charm is a result of knowing who we are and having the confidence to maintain that identity. Being small does not mean being irrelevant. Nostalgia does not equal backwardness. We simply need to use more careful discretion before taking on enormous projects that lead us down the road to unintended consequences. Press the pause button. Look around. Take stock. There’s a lot here to work with already.
My commitment to the Town of Bethel is making sure we never lose our Bethelness. And, P.S., every vote counts!
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