Revenue Gap Threatens New Britain Municipal Budget

It’s a year when local and state governments are struggling with falling tax revenues and a severe economic downturn. New Britain is facing all of those struggles plus one more potential hole that could break the city budget in the new fiscal year.

The problem? Mayor Stewart’s proposed $216.3 million estimate, now getting scrutiny by the Common Council, has added millions of dollars of revenue that may not exist at all.

The Mayor’s numbers for the sale of real property includes a $3.5 million line item, an increase of $3 million over the Board of Finance’s $500,000 estimate. The source of the $3 million has been reported to be the city’s sale of the former Pinnacle Heights public housing project to Centerplan development company.

Back in March Mayor Stewart told the Herald: “It’s still up in the air but it’s because of the major change in the economy. Unfortunately, that’s something none of us can control. However, we can work to make sure the deal goes through eventually.”

(Democrats questions Pinnacle Heights…)

At issue is whether the $3 million in property revenue and perhaps millions more booked by the city’s finance department for the sale of property in previous years are for real, or based on any solid promises to give by the buyers.

The Common Council, in addition to its line by line review of the budget with department heads, needs to ascertain the status of the Mayor’s revenue estimates, particularly with regard to sale of property, for a true picture of the city’s finances. As the June budget deadline approaches, there are millions of dollars being used to balance the city budget with nothing so far to back it up.

Time is running short on adopting a municipal budget by mid June. It’s time for the Mayor to lead, not mislead the public on whether those property sale revenues can be counted on before June 30th.

No one can blame anyone at City Hall for a bad economy but City Hall has an obligation to tell the truth — even if that truth is bad news.

Thinking Globally Today: Buy Fair Trade

If you’re shopping this weekend for Mother’s Day, looking for a graduation gift or just want a latte, there are ways to strike a blow for economic justice and sustainable development.

Saturday May 9th is Fair Trade Day around the globe. It’s a weekend filled with all sorts of events — more in Canada and Great Britain than the U.S.– that celebrates alternative consumption wherein consumers of the developed countries pay more for coffee, chocolate and other commodities and goods than they would in the mass consumer market.

Buying “fair trade” chocolate or another certified fair trade product ensures that the producers (small farmers and artisans) in under developed and impoverished countries receive a living wage and fair return. In the case of chocolate, it gives you assurance that child slaves didn’t harvest the cacao beans that find their way into mass market candy bars. Yes. The practice goes on in strife-torn Cote ‘d Ivorie to this day.

My own interest in the subject stems from an unfinished thesis — “The Market Potential of Fair Trade Cocoa” — that assesses how the fair trade movement can make a difference in a new era of globalization when the gap between rich and poor still grows.

During the 1990s a movement of religious, civil society groups and environmental and human rights activists spawned and supported these alternative structures that attempt to end the inequities of the market for hundreds of thousands of small to medium-sized farmers. The movement which first gained notoriety in the ubiquitous coffee industry has accelerated into chocolate, bananas and other commodities of value from less developed countries.

The unequal exchange, of course, is nothing new. Colonialism is one long chain of exploitation over several centuries. The more you look into it, the more you realize that the new globalization aptly described by the New York Times’ Tom Friedman in his books hasn’t ended the exploitation and may be extending it into the 21st century. The transfers between the small producers of tropical crops and the end users in developed countries can be as as inequitable and exploitative as ever.

One of the good resources for this movement may be found at Equal Exchange. While fair trade sales have grown exponentially over the last decade, their percentages as measured against the mass market are in the single digits. But the movement, however limited, does show a way to reduce poverty and provide living wages one farmer and one coop at a time.

So if you are feeling sufficiently guilty, or just want to strike a small blow for economic justice, here are three ways to help on Fair Trade Day locally:

* Get your mother a woven bag from Peru or a necklace from Sri Lanka at Ten Thousand Villages (there’s a store in West Hartford)

* Pick up a box of fair trade certified chocolate or coffee at an organic food store or even the supermarket where they can be found now that corporations are finding there are some profits to be made from niche markets.

* Get a latte or cappuccino at Dunkin Donuts which uses fair-trade coffee for all of its brews that aren’t just a cup of joe.