NB Politicus

Rell’s Local Aid: Placing More Burdens On Cities

Posted in city politics and government, property tax, state aid by nbpoliticus on February 27, 2009

The mayors of Bridgeport and New Britain have forged a bipartisan alliance to praise Gov. Jodi Rell’s budget package for level funding of education aid to cities and towns. All cities and towns will get the same amount for the single largest local expense item — the schools.

According to a New Britain Herald op-ed by Bill Finch (D-Bridgeport) and Tim Stewart (R-New Britain) and James Craven’s story sharing their togetherness, Rell’s proposal is a good start to the budget process for their towns. To be sure a status quo Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) for all 169 cities and towns is a good idea. It will mitigate somewhat the annual tug of war between city halls and boards of education.

But a closer look at Rell’s state aid formula shows that cities lose out in a big way compared to their suburban neighbors. At a February 19th Democratic Town Committee meeting on state aid and the federal stimulus package State Rep. Peter Tercyak (D-26) pointed out why Rell’s budget — estimated to be $2 billion out of balance in the early going — tilts against cities and their residents more than suburbia.

Cities such as New Britain have always relied on payments in lieu of taxes — PILOT funds — to offset the presence of state property, hospitals and agencies in their towns. Otherwise, taxable land is tax free when a state- or nonprofit owns it. The economically distressed cities, by and large, house the bulk of tax exempt property; the more affluent towns do not. PILOT funds, though not providing a dollar for dollar exchange back to the community, offset the presence of tax-exempt property with much needed revenue.

Rell’s budget slashes PILOT funds by double digit percentages. In Bridgeport, the Governor would cut PILOT money for colleges and hospitals from $11,200,500 to $10,041,445, a 10.35% decline. Aid for state-owned property in goes from $2,676,768 to $2,450,950, an 8.44% drop.

According to the percentage decreases, New Britain takes a bigger hit than Bridgeport on PILOT money. The current $3,561,936 for colleges and hospitals will drop down to $2,793,464, 21.57% less; payments for state-owned property go from $4,255,399 to $3,407,080, 19.94% less.

While Rell’s 0% decrease on ECS is welcome news for Bridgeport and New Britain; it’s equally welcome news for every town, rich and poor. Finch and Stewart may as well have been the mayors of New Canaan and Avon in offering praise for Rell’s budget.

The PILOT funding shows that in tough economic times Rell gives the rich towns a better deal than economically stressed cities. It’s just one more disadvantage that cities face and the long driveway towns won’t in paying for and delivering essential services.

That’s something Finch and Stewart can’t be so happy about and didn’t mention in their strong praise of Rell for level ECS funding. The Legislature now has the hard task of setting aside Rell’s fuzzy math and dealing with the most difficult budget cycle since the early 1990s.

Ethics Flap Prompts Billy Mac To Resign From Board; Salvio’s Complaint Called Another "Fishing Expedition"

Posted in city politics and government, ethics by nbpoliticus on February 18, 2009

The resignation of former Mayor William McNamara from the city ethics commission adds another partisan twist to the sorry state of affairs on a board charged with keeping municipal officials honest.

The Courant and Herald covered McNamara’s move this past week.

Billy Mac, a supporter of the incumbent Mayor and the emcee at Stewart’s inaugurals, derided a decision by the Common Council not to accept a ruling against Ald. Paul Catanzaro for participating in a Council discussion related to work at the Parks and Recreation Department. Republican Ald. Lou Salvio, a prolific filer of official complaints against Democrats, brought the original charge. On the first go around the ethics commission threw out the allegation. But it got a second life as the Herald’s James Craven reports:

A quorum of the commission dismissed the complaint 2-1, but on Dec. 22, commissioner Jill Kemp, a Republican, made a motion to reconsider the dismissal. During a Jan. 21 meeting, the commission heard testimony and added two letters to its investigation. After reviewing the material, Republican commissioners William Dworski, Jill Kemp and Carmelo Rodriguez, along with Democrats Kemp and McNamara, voted unanimously that Catanzaro be reprimanded for two violations.

The reconsideration has brought charges from Democrats that Salvio openly violated the ethics rules himself by disclosing information that is supposed to remain under wraps as part of the ethics process. And then there is the matter of Billy Mac himself. Members of the ethics commission, while they can contribute to political candidates, may not endorse or campaign for a candidate. By all accounts, former Mayor McNamara has been a public supporter of Stewart during his re-election bids.

All of this tit for tat, of course, doesn’t have much to do with grand lists, fiscal prudence, essential services and keeping the city afloat during one of the worst recession’s in anybody’s memory. Come to think of it, it may not have much to do with conflicts of interest or ethics either.

The allegation made against Catanzaro raises again the issue of what elected officials who are connected to the city by reason of employment can and can’t do in their elected capacities. This two-hatted group includes Mayor Stewart (on loan from the fire department), Alderwoman Tonilynn Collins (water department)and Catanzaro
(a rank and filer at parks & rec).

Salvio alleges that Catanzaro’s Council vote to have the city perform a landscaping job instead of a private contractor created a conflict because as an employee of Parks & Rec Catanzaro “would be benefiting himself.” Catanzaro, a city alderman with responsibilities on budget matters, says that he felt obligated to support the city doing the work “to save money.” He went further by saying he would not be involved in doing the work that was estimated as a two-day job with $120 in labor costs. But that’s not Catanzaro’s decision. It would be up to Parks Director Bill DeMaio or a supervisor to assign a worker to do the job, including Catanzaro if they so chose. And Catanzaro should have left well enough alone by excusing himself when the ethics report arrived this month.

The real issue is whether Catanzaro stood to directly gain financially from participating in the city versus private contractor vote. Did Salvio find a smoking gun? Was there a documented request by Catanzaro to his bosses that he wanted the work for himself and/or his union? The answer appears to be no, lending credence to the claim made by North-Oak Street neighborhood activist Rich Marzi at a February Council meeting that Salvio is engaging in “a fishing expedition.” Salvio admitted as much at a January 21st ethics hearing on the matter by saying he “now believes Catanzaro would not have benefited directly as a result of his actions,” according to a Herald story in the hearing.

This Salvio complaint follows a string of other complaints against Democratic members of the Common Council since Mayor Stewart, using his authority under a new charter, appointed a new ethics commission in 2004 at the start of his administration. A January 2004 Herald story “Stewart picks ethics panel” by Penny Riordan points to a Republican strategy of complaints aimed at Democratic aldermen and unionized city employees from the earliest days of Stewart’s administration. Rather than take a bipartisan approach to appointments, Stewart took absolute control. Not surprisingly, the Stewart-appointed commission has been unanimous in casting aspersions against Democratic aldermen.

The Commission also turned aside a complaint early on that, as an elected mayor connected to the city fire department, Stewart was required to file a statement with the ethics board so he could carry out his elected duties while on leave from regular city employment. Stewart never filed a statement despite specific requirements for a mayor that are set forth in the code of ethics.

Another complaint that alleged Stewart intervened in fire department personnel matters was also rejected by the ethics panel. Subsequently, Stewart and the city have lost labor board and court rulings by denying Firefighter Ed Preece a promotion despite Preece’ high exam scores. Preece was replaced by lower scoring candidates connected to the Mayor. And the case has cost the city a chunk of change for nothing in return.

If nothing else the controversies at the ethics board during the Stewart years have undermined a Commission that needs to be set up above the political frays that are an inevitable part of the process.

There are well-intended arguments that city employees should not be allowed to run for municipal offices as is the case with the state and state legislators. But that is not the case now. Stewart, Catanzaro and Collins were elected by voters with policy making and budget roles. They can and should recuse themselves if they or family members stands to directly benefit from their actions. Otherwise, let them govern.

By applying that standard, the latest complaint by Salvio has all the earmarks of a partisan and spontaneous attack on a fellow council member. Salvio’s actions have been aided and abetted by Mayor Stewart who keeps the make up and structure of the local ethics board under his thumb. He can go to work at City Hall knowing that he and members of his administration are above any ethics problems because he has the votes to make it so.

Billy Mac is right about one thing: it’s a waste of time to serve on the current ethics commission. The situation, however, leaves the city without a process to handle the real conflicts of interest that may be lurking at City Hall.

Andy Stern On The Delay In the Solis Nomination: "Unacceptable"

Posted in Uncategorized by nbpoliticus on February 7, 2009

Last month President Obama nominated Congresswoman Hilda Solis to be our next Secretary of Labor, but conservative Republicans are blocking her confirmation simply because she supports working people.

I just recorded a short video message about this unacceptable obstruction and how you can help.

Watch it: http://action.seiu.org/page/s/confirmsolis

Please take a minute to watch my video, then sign our petition to the Senate supporting Congresswoman Solis for Secretary of Labor.

Congresswoman Hilda Solis is the embodiment of the American Dream.

That conservative Republicans are choosing to obstruct her nomination is an insult to every working person in America.

Stern is the President of the Service Employees International Union

Photo: New York Times

State Republicans Retreat To New Britain

Posted in city politics and government, Republicans by nbpoliticus on February 2, 2009

The Republican State Central Committee, hit hard by losses in state House races last year, left Hartford for New Britain’s A.H. Harris Building in December in office space that is “twice as big as our current digs and provides us with some exciting new opportunities,” according to a GOP blog. The opportunities, say the Republicans, involve a facility big enough for in-house training classes “so that our candidates can improve their communication skills, learn about web-based tools…and engage in discussions on key policy questions with the smartest people we can find.”

In Scott Whipple’s recent Herald story on the Republicans’ move, State Chair Chris Healy explained:

“New Britain is really the heart of the state..Not just geographically. It’s emblematic of the kind of hard-working, family-oriented, community-involved city where we want to be…..The city has its own notable Republicans: Mayor [Tim] Stewart, Nancy Johnson and Tom Meskill. We didn’t need to be in the capital city, yet we wanted to stay in metro Hartford.”

Nonetheless New Britain seems an unlikely place for the state GOP to locate an office. There are 18,072 Democrats here (12/31/2008) compared to about 3,699 Republicans — part of the surge that favored Democrats everywhere in 2008. When unaffiliateds (11,749) are counted, Republicans account for little more than 11 percent of the electorate. Republicans would counter that they hold the Mayor’s office with incumbent Tim Stewart, who rode into office when residents were hit with 40% revaluation hikes a few years ago. Stewart certainly didn’t get elected because he is a Republican; the electorate in a divided government mood voted the incumbent out for ignoring assessment hikes in a property tax system that state Republicans, by and large, want to maintain. Two years ago, however, Stewart’s expected coattails didn’t materialize as the GOP lost ground on the Common Council. His state party’s presence is also a double-edged sword for the Mayor. The only party affiliation you’ll find on his lawn signs is “Democrat” (as in “Democrats for Stewart”). The same could be said for former Congresswoman and New Britain resident Nancy Johnson who finally lost in 2006 when her Republican antics and actions in Washington finally outpaced her moderate, bi-partisan tone back home, complete with the “Democrats for Johnson” lawn signs all over town in her recent elections.

The often acerbic and confrontational Healy appears to be borrowing a page from the national strategy of former Democratic National Chair Howard Dean whose 50-state strategy is credited with turning red states to blue in the Presidential and congressional races last year. He says his party’s candidates need to get support from all parts of the state, not just Fairfield County where even the last of the GOP members of Congress in New England, Chris Shays, lost last year.

Healy’s challenges, however, run much deeper than finding and training candidates to run for office. In the Herald story, he unwittingly lets us in on the problem with the Republican brand:

“I’m not worried. We have plenty of talented people who want to run. We’ve got Republican mayors in Danbury, Middletown and New Britain with ability and passion. Democrats will always have people who want to make a career out of politics. A lot of Republicans come from the real world; they’re not interested in government.”

They’re not interested in government. That statement provides as good an explanation as any of the mounting foreign and domestic troubles of the country with Republicans in charge of the White House and Congress over these last eight years. You might say Bush and the Republicans “weren’t interested in government working effectively,” leading to the train wrecks left to the Obama administration to solve now.

And in New Britain, Healy couldn’t be thinking of his Mayor, Tim Stewart, with his lifelong career in government in the Fire Department. Nor his local party chair, Paul Carver, who left the private sector years ago to take a Rowland patronage appointment to the DPUC. Actions speak louder than words, and phony arguments that always tear down the public sector can’t help our current difficulties when public and private solutions are needed for the recovery. Whatever happened to that well-known Republican Abraham Lincoln who famously said the role of government is “to do for the people what they can’t do for themselves.”

Healy’s mantra and that of many of his Republican brethren remains that the individual is more important than the community; that private interest and gain should always trump the public interest even in these dire economic times. Witness the incredible display of selfishness by Republican House members last week in Washington: not one GOPer voted for a federal stimulus and reinvestment package that would reach down and provide some measure of relief to local governments, schools and the unemployed. Better to fork over more tax breaks to the wealthy and continue Wall Street welfare; promise that all of the government largesse will eventually trickle down to the rest of us living in Hooverville.

The acerbic Healy knows that that message will never sell in New Britain. He must know that a conservative Republicanism serving the interests of corporate giants over Main Street and small business is morally and politically bankrupt. The only thing left to do is to keep tearing down Democrats without offering much in the way of solutions or programs in return. In his new New Britain digs, Healy joins kindred spirits with the likes of Mayor Stewart, Ald. Lou Salvio and Chairman Paul Carver who could write a book on petty politics. Instead of reaching out to govern on a bipartisan basis between elections, their tactics frequently involve personal attacks, using official complaint processes for partisan ends and losing one Freedom of Information case after another to keep public information from Democrats and everyone else.

Let the battle for the hearts and votes of New Britain voters begin in 2009. Meanwhile, New Britain Democrats welcome the state Republican office to New Britain.

And kudos to State Party Chair Chris Healy for demonstrating that New Britain is not a bad place to re-locate a business or a group seeking to rebound from a disaster.

Photo Credit: http://forwardliberally.wordpress.com/2008/11/21/more-from-the-republican-civil-wars/