MADISON — Residents will head to the polls next week to vote on who will run the town for the next two years, with a choice between two-term incumbent First Selectman Thomas Banisch and his opponent, Peggy Lyons.

Several positions on the Board of Finance also are contested, with five candidates running for three spots.

In the race for the town’s top office, Banisch, a Republican, has campaigned on fiscal conservatism and his past accomplishments, including infrastructure improvements, minimization of health insurance costs and his work on veterans’ issues.

Lyons, a Democrat who has a 17-year background in corporate finance, has promised more transparency in town government and the creation of a long-term strategic plan.

Though both candidates want to foster economic growth and maintain Madison’s resources, such as its school system and beaches, a recent debate highlighted multiple differences between Banisch and Lyons, a recording of the event from Madison Cable Access Group shows.

The League of Women’s Voters and the Madison Parents’ Representative Council held the debate.

Though both candidates favored keeping taxes steady while maintaining excellent services for residents, the two differed in how they viewed the state of the town’s finances.

The first selectman said he had managed to keep taxes at a minimum while increasing services. He has issued Requests for Proposals on almost every product and service, checked all bills to ensure the town was never double charged and implemented best practices, he said.

What’s more, the town’s health insurance premiums have not increased for three years, Banisch said.

“My campaign has been run on the idea that I’ve been fiscally responsible,” he told the audience. He ran a business before taking office, he noted.

In a prior interview, Banisch told the Register he believed he was a lot more fiscally conservative than his opponent.

But during the debate, Lyons made her own case for why she was able to manage town finances: “I spent a lot of my career working with companies trying to be fiscally responsible.”

The town operating budget has increased by 18 percent since Banisch took office, Lyons said.

The town budgets, which are posted online, indicate that the approved town operating costs for fiscal year 2019-20 show an increase of about 15 percent from those of 2015-16. Banisch was elected in November 2015.

Later in the debate, Lyons spoke of long-term planning as it relates to fiscal responsibility.

When asked about capital improvements and the impact they make on property taxes, she stressed the need to “look at the long run,” pointing out that projects can end up costing more when the town waits to act.

Banisch, however, indicated the town has not been ignoring capital improvements. “We have a capital improvement plan that addresses those things,” he said.

What’s the plan?

The need for long-term planning has been a pillar of Lyons’ campaign, but at the debate, Banisch said he started the activity around creating a strategic plan, inviting in a consultant.

Yet there has been limited participation from Madison residents with regards to discussing the plan, Banisch said, adding that folks have chosen instead to criticize. The town needs to have an “honest conversation” about the strategic plan, he said.

Lyons countered, arguing that “part of the lack of participation in our community is that we have not had much outreach.” She has stressed that a strategic plan should include a “vision” for the town, one that reflects what residents want Madison to look like in the long-term.

When it came time to debate the plan for two major potential town projects—school facilities improvements and the future of the Academy School building—the candidates expressed their differences.

The moderator asked about two plans to address issues in school facilities: an $84 million consolidation, and a $98 million school maintenance project.

“I support a plan that is fiscally responsible,” Banisch said, adding that $84 million is too high a price tag and would hurt the town’s credit rating, increase its debt and raise taxes dramatically.

Banisch did, however, say that it was time to act. “I’m in favor of looking at these plans and seeing how we can implement them to do what’s best for the schools.”

Lyons was critical of Banisch’s approach.

“I don’t think the first selectman’s office has taken an active participatory role in trying to find solutions to this problem,” she said, adding that the town has been aware of the issues with the school’s buildings for at least a few years.

“To delay and delay and delay again — time is money,” Lyons continued. “We need to sit down right away, roll up our sleeves and figure this out together as a town, working collaboratively with the Board of Finance, the Board of Education, to come up with the right proposal.”

Asked about the Academy School, a vacant town property whose future has sparked spirited talks, both candidates agreed there should be a referendum on what to do with the building.

But Banisch said he believed the school should be sold to a private developer, with an arrangement that would allow the town to use part of the property as community space.

Lyons, on the other hand, thought the building should remain in the hands of the town, pointing to a poll and comments at various meetings that suggest that’s also what residents want.

She suggested the town come up with a business plan that will fund its cost by hosting various tenants, who would in turn promote arts and culture as well as education. The building could become a destination on the Shoreline, Lyons said.

But Banisch worried about cost. Given that re-purposing the building would cost a minimum of $14 million, he said, the choice is a difficult one.

Banisch said he still welcomes a referendum. “I think it’s important that the community gets to see both sides of the picture ... and then make a decision at referendum.”

A question of ethics

The possible creation of an Ethics Commission also came up at the debate.

Banisch thinks an Ethics Commission should be considered, he said.

“I’ve heard from other people that an Ethics Committee is a great idea and I’ve heard from other people that it can be a witch hunt,” he said.

But while Lyons acknowledged that ethics commissions can be unfair, she also pointed out they can act as clearinghouses for folks who have been accused of wrongdoing.

“I absolutely think we need an Ethics Commission. It’s something most towns in Connecticut have,” she said, adding that it was important for the RFP and procurement process, too.

Banisch agreed a commission could act as a clearinghouse, and said it would have been helpful in dispelling false rumors that he wanted to sell Academy School just to get a real estate commission.

“That was totally unreasonable of that to be said,” Banisch said of the rumors.

The Board of Finance

With five candidates running for three spots on the Board of Finance, Madison will be electing more than just a first selectman next week.

The only incumbent up for re-election is Democrat Kevin Kranzler. Also on the Democratic ticket are John Picard and Seth Klaskin.

On the Republican side, Justin Murphy and former First Selectman Fillmore McPherson are both in the running.

The Board of Finance candidates also participated in a debate Thursday. A recording from Madison Cable Access Group can be found on YouTube.

Connecticut Media Group