ctnewsjunkie file photo
Rep. Melissa Ziobron (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD, CT — On paper it looks like state Rep. Melissa Ziobron, who is in a pitched battle for a state Senate seat, was the highest paid state legislator in 2017.

Her opponent in the race, Essex First Selectman Norm Needleman, sent out a press release last week to highlight the fact that Ziobron collected $18,379 in “other” pay last year. That’s on top of a base salary of $32,241 for the part-time lawmaker.

In a phone interview last week, Ziobron said that Needleman is wrong.

She said it looks as if she was the highest paid lawmaker because for four years Legislative Management had only paid her mileage one-way to the state Capitol, instead of roundtrip.

She said she doesn’t know why they decided to issue her a single check for four years of underreported mileage in 2017.

As far as who discovered the error, Ziobron said she doesn’t “pour over her paycheck,” but remembers getting a call from Legislative Management informing her of the error. They ended up issuing her one check in June 2017 for $14,291.

“I think there’s a lot of Chutzpah over me being highest paid legislator in the face of his decision to continually increase the stipend whether he takes it or not,” Ziobron said.

Ziobron is referring to Needleman’s decision to take only 25 percent of his salary as first selectman.

Needleman said he donates multiples of his salary to the town and its community and for anyone to suggest he’s doing something wrong by allowing the Board of Selectman to increase the salary for the position is “ridiculous.”

Needleman cut his pay by 75 percent and donated the remainder to area charities.

Needleman said he’s in a position to donate his salary, but the next person who wins the job of first selectman might not be. He said the salary needs to continue to increase at the same level as other employees.

“Whatever I got I donated back to the community,” Needleman said.

A PAC that has nothing to do Ziobron’s campaign has spent more than $74,292 in opposition to Needleman. Most of the money has been spent on direct mail pieces against him and have been critical of the increases in his salary, which prompted the press release.

Needleman is partly self-funding his campaign and recently contributed another $100,000 to the effort. His campaign has about $28,000 cash on hand as of Oct. 16. So far, Needleman has raised and contributed about $407,460 to the race. Ziobron is using the Citizens Election Program and has $95,710 to spend on the race. There’s another PAC that’s spent about $6,000 in support of her candidacy.

“If Melissa went four years without realizing she wasn’t being properly compensated, then what does that say about her handling of the state budget?” Needleman said.

Needleman, who in addition to being first selectman is also the CEO of Tower Laboratories, which make effervescent products, said reimbursing someone for mileage four years after it was accrued would never happen in the private sector.

“In no business in the world would anybody ever give you an expense reimbursement four years later,” Needleman said. “At some level you have to be responsible and make sure that your submissions are correct.”

Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie
Ned Lamont with Norm Needleman at Tower Laboratories in August (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie)

The seat is one of seven open state Senate seats on November 6.

In 2014, Needleman ran for the same seat and received 41 percent of the vote. But this year he believes his chances are better mostly because of what’s happening in Washington.

The district includes East Hampton, Colchester, East Haddam, Essex, Lyme, and Old Saybrook.

It’s currently held by Sen. Art Linares, a Republican from Westbrook, who lost his party’s nomination for state treasurer.

Before Linares, the seat was held by the late-Democratic Sen. Eileen Daily, who served for more than a decade.

The state Senate is currently evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats so both parties are working hard to tip the balance.