BY ETHAN FORMAN STAFF WRITER
The Salem News
---- — DANVERS — Selectman Dan Bennett, the Republican challenger for the 13th Essex District seat, butted heads yesterday with Democratic state Rep. Ted Speliotis over state aid, homeless families living in motels, Beacon Hill ethics and other topics in an often testy exchange during an editorial board meeting at The Salem News.
Bennett launched the first attack, and stayed on the attack, even when Speliotis declined to criticize, or even discuss, his opponent.
The two men are running in the only contested state representative race on the North Shore, a result of Bennett’s last-minute sticker campaign to get his name on the ballot during the Republican primary last month. It is also a rematch of two years ago, when Bennett challenged Speliotis unsuccessfully.
Bennett opened the discussion by criticizing Speliotis for taking too much credit for the increase in local aid to Danvers, and the newspaper because a chart showing local aid numbers didn’t go back far enough. Had it included fiscal 2009, before the state made deep cuts to local aid, it would have shown that the town still has less local aid than it did then, Bennett said.
“Ted, do you remember the local aid to Danvers in 2009?” Bennett asked.
“I do,” Speliotis said.
“And,” Bennett replied.
“What do you want me to say? It’s your minutes,” Speliotis said. “You do what you want to do, and (then) I’ll talk.”
That tenor continued through the hourlong meeting.
“If Ted wants to take credit for the 26 percent increase in this year’s local aid,” Bennett said, “he should take responsibility for the decrease back in 2009 and 2010.”
“Now you said something I can respond to,” Speliotis replied, recalling a past selectmen’s meeting when Bennett and others criticized state lawmakers for cuts to local aid.
“It was unabashed,” Speliotis said of the criticism, “and people refused to acknowledge we were in the worst economic times of our lives. ... The vast majority of state income is based on two revenue sources, income and sales taxes.” Those two collapsed during the recession, he said.
Speliotis also said he’d checked and found the local aid increase to Danvers this year should be pegged at 36 percent, not 26.
When he compared it to the increases in Beverly, which got 3 percent, and Salem, which got 11 percent, Bennett interjected: “Those aren’t your communities.”
“If you are going to give me the blame, you are going to have to give me the credit,” said Speliotis, who said it was fair to compare state aid to other districts.
Speliotis said the increase in state aid to Danvers was tied to a ruling by the state auditor, which he requested, that school transportation for homeless students and some educational costs were unfunded mandates that should be paid for by the state.
The town’s budget motels have been housing homeless families from throughout the state, and homeless children have the right to either attend Danvers schools or be bused to their home communities, creating a financial burden for the town.
Bennett countered that the town has spent about $400,000 in the past few years on homeless student transportation, far more than the $100,000 Speliotis was able to win for the town this fiscal year.
Asked what they’d do about the issue of homeless families in the motels, Bennett said, “We need to create some transitional housing for these families, and we need to work on that sooner rather than later.” He suggested that foreclosed properties on the North Shore might be used to shelter homeless families.
Speliotis said he has proposed a bill with a “sunset provision” that would require the state to stop sheltering homeless people in motels when the unemployment rate falls below 6.5 percent. He also favors a six-month residency requirement for someone to get a motel room for shelter.
Bennett said those proposals would amount to the state’s turning its back on the homeless.
Bennett also criticized Speliotis’ stand on ethics reform at the Legislature, saying he’d voted against a ban on allowing lobbyists in the House chamber or the members’ lounge.
“Ted voted not to stop that. He’s obviously in favor of it,” Bennett said.
“Actually, he’s making assumptions that aren’t true, but that’s OK,” Speliotis said. He said he does favor some ethics reform, but voted against that bill because he thought some of the rules, such as making lobbyists wear badges, were “silly.”
Offered the opportunity, Speliotis declined to criticize Bennett in his role as a selectman.
“I have a policy I’ve had for my whole career,” Speliotis said. “I’m their state rep. They are members of the local board. I work with them, that’s it.”
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.