Sassorossi plays up her town governance experience
By Greg Elias
If an election is akin to a job interview, then Judy Sassorossi would be the confident candidate who touts her experience and says she can hit the ground running.
Sassorossi is the incumbent in a two-person contest for a three-year seat on the Williston Selectboard. She is running against Bob Blankenheim, a first-time candidate who asserts the town needs a break from business as usual.
Sassorossi has been a fixture in town governance for the past decade and a half. She is completing her first two-year term on the Selectboard. Before that, she served on the Williston Planning Commission for about 12 years and on a traffic study committee.
Sassorossi, who works as an employee benefits specialist for a South Burlington insurance brokerage, said she is often asked by companies she works with if she knows of someone who can fill an opening. So she easily frames her run for public office in terms of the private job market.
“When employers are looking for people, they are always looking for people with education and experience for the job they are going to fill,” she said. “And I think right now Williston really needs people with education and experience. If I was the employer in this situation, I’d want me for the job.”
Wearing an aqua sweater and sipping a diet soda, Sassorossi spoke about her life and fielded questions about issues facing Williston during an interview last week at Chef’s Corner Café Bakery.
Sassorossi grew up in tiny Madison, N.H., a town near Conway. Her school was so small that there were only five children in her elementary school class.
Her dad was road agent in Madison, a position akin to a public works director. Several of her friends served on municipal boards.
“So I just grew up very aware of municipal government, and that towns don’t run themselves,” she said.
She and her husband, Kenn, have been married 33 years. They have two grown children and live in the Meadow Brook subdivision off Route 2A.
Sassorossi moved to Williston in 1985, when Taft Corners was still largely undeveloped. That area has since become a commercial hub that includes the town’s much-criticized big-box stores.
Much of that change took place during the dozen years Sassorossi served on the Planning Commission starting in 1993. The experience gave her a front-row view on the development wars that roiled Williston throughout the 1990s and the early part of this decade.
Not surprisingly, her positions are those of a hard-headed realist rather than someone who worries that Williston is viewed by some as the poster child for poorly planned development.
“People often forget that we are really a nation of individual rights and responsibilities, and individual rights color a lot of what happens,” she said. “The town is not at liberty to pick and choose what business comes or goes. If a person comes to town with a project, and it meets the zoning and planning parameters, we have no choice but to approve it.”
On budget issues, Sassorossi is equally focused on nuts and bolts. She spoke about the need to continue basic services such as snowplowing and to maintain capital investments like fire trucks.
Her opponent has criticized the board for formulating the proposed municipal budget based on a 5 percent spending increase. He said the town should have started from scratch and justified each expenditure, as is done in the business world.
Sassorossi said Blankenheim clearly did not understand the town’s budget process before making the statement.
“I find it better to know about something before I criticize it,” she said. “To pay someone to sit down and rebuild a budget every year would be wasteful.”
The proposed landfill in Williston is another point of contention between Sassorossi and Blankenheim.
She said residents voted to host the facility and noted that the subsequent agreement with the Chittenden Solid Waste District has been worth millions of dollars in revenue and services for the town.
Blankenheim, who lives near the landfill’s proposed site, argues that the facility is not needed. He said it will reduce property values and threaten the environment.
The disagreement is more than an abstract policy difference: Sassorossi was on the Planning Commission in 1996 when it approved the subdivision where Blankenheim lives. The Chittenden Solid Waste District asked the commission to require the developer to notify homebuyers about the proposed landfill, but the commission declined.
Williston had no established process that would permit such a condition of approval, Sassorossi said. The decision to forgo the notification requirement was made based on advice from the town’s attorney.
“When you serve on a board, you have to go by the legal advice the town paid for,” she said.
Though she emphasizes her experience, Sassorossi acknowledged that “it is a little weird” to be considered the establishment candidate.
“I’m a pretty independent thinker, and I always have been. I’ve never had an agenda on any board I’ve been on. I read the material and I give my dispassionate view. I try to facilitate us getting from where we are to where we want to be.”
Name: Judy Sassorossi
Address: 89 Hickory Hill Road
Number of years living in Williston: I’ve lived in Williston for 23 years.
Employer name and job description: I work for Fleischer Jacobs Group in South Burlington as an Employee Benefit Specialist. I work with companies throughout Vermont and the Northeast, of all sizes and types, helping them construct benefit packages for their employees.
Previous experience in elected or appointed positions, or community service: In Williston, I have served on the Williston Area Traffic Study Committee, the Planning Commission and the Selectboard. During my tenure on the Planning Commission, about 12 years, I worked with various subcommittees as we revised the Town Plan (as mandated by the state) every five years. In my tenure on the Selectboard I have worked on subcommittees reviewing the host town agreements for the landfill and transfer stations and the discharge ordinance, and have worked with staff on personnel policy.
What is the most important issue facing the town of Williston? How should the town address this issue?
There are several important issues facing the town, as would be expected in a town that is a focal point for growth. A portion of Williston’s land area is located within a triangle with points at the state’s largest private employer, the airport and an interstate exit. In real estate parlance this is location, location, location. Over the last 20 years, much thought and effort has gone into planning development in this area and it continues today. Growing pains are difficult; there is no doubt about that. One needs to keep in mind that we live in a land of private property rights, the town should guide development but it cannot stop it.
The town may face a financial squeeze over the next few years, with falling sales tax revenue and a potential recession reducing available funding for municipal services. If there is a budget crunch, would you cut services, raise property taxes, or do both?
Municipal government is a service entity. Unlike the private sector, which can choose to eliminate a product or division, town government is mandated to provide certain services. When it snows, we expect our roads to be plowed; when we sell property, we expect records to be on file at the Town Clerk’s office; when we call 911, we expect people to respond. Williston is very fortunate to have staff and board members committed to providing excellent service efficiently. We are also fortunate that more than half of our revenue comes from non-property tax sources. By spreading revenue sources, the effect of an adverse impact on any one is diminished. Please remember that the municipal taxes on a $300,000 home are less than the average cable television bill.
Some residents oppose a proposed landfill in Williston. The landfill would produce revenue for the town but those living nearby fear pollution and falling property values. Do you support or oppose constructing a landfill in Williston? Why?
The voters of Williston voted to host a regional landfill. A town meeting vote is binding upon town government. As a result of the vote the Selectboard at the time entered into a host town agreement with the Chittenden Solid Waste District. We have accepted millions of dollars in cash and services from CSWD, including the transfer of management responsibility for the capped landfills at the Redmond Road site to CSWD. Should CSWD come forward with plans to build a landfill at the site, it will be incumbent upon the boards of the town and the state regulatory agencies to ensure that there are no adverse impacts. Meanwhile, the host town agreements continue to be a valuable revenue stream for the town.
Williston has struggled over the past 20 years to balance commercial and residential growth with a desire to maintain the town’s small-town character. Is Williston growing at the right pace? Should the town tighten or loosen existing controls on growth?
Williston is probably the most experienced town in the state at managing growth. The Town Plan has evolved over the years to guide and structure growth in a manner that has allowed us to protect and acquire vital resources such as open space and various types of pedestrian paths. We have focused growth within the sewer district where services can be delivered efficiently, thereby keeping much of the land area of Williston open. The transition from rural community to regional growth center has been and continues to be a challenge. However, the policies we have in place guide development to areas where it can best be supported.
Census figures show most people who work in Williston don’t live here while most Willistonians commute to other towns. The situation is caused largely by a lack of jobs in town that pay people enough to afford Williston’s relatively high cost of housing. How can the town address this disconnect between employment and housing, which leads to traffic congestion and pollution?
Affordable housing is a county and statewide issue. The fastest growing areas in Vermont are the counties surrounding Chittenden County. The dense development at Taft Corners is a start at concentrating housing and commercial activity. We are just seeing the start of a new housing development in this area. The recent designation as a growth center will help give us the tools we need to complete the infrastructure and continue to develop in a smart growth manner.