NB Politicus

New Britain’s Bond Rating Drops From Stable To Negative: Huge Spike In Debt Through 2021 Cited By Moody’s

Posted in city government, City Hall, municipal budget, New Britain, Uncategorized by nbpoliticus on November 4, 2017

By John McNamara

Republican incumbent Mayor Erin Stewart, in her re-election campaign this year and throughout her second term, has touted improving municipal bond ratings for New Britain’s fiscal solvency, claiming credit for budget surpluses of $15 million and pushing spending up at City Hall with no need for an election year tax increase.

Fiscal stability is the cornerstone of her platform and a main talking point in her aspirations to leave the mayor’s job for statewide office. Her campaign’s website points to New Britain “gracing the cover of the Bond Buyer, a trade publication covering the municipal bond market, “not once but twice. The city under her management is a shining example for how to make a financial turnaround work during a difficult economy.”

The November 2nd edition of Bond Buyerhowever, paints a different picture for the city’s finances in the  latest analysis, portending a difficult road ahead for the city’s budget over the next four years.  Moody’s Investor Services, which along with Standard & Poor’s, assesses the borrowing ability and fiscal health of cities in the municipal bond market, has downgraded general obligation borrowing to Baa2 from Baa1. “Moody’s cited New Britain’s reliance on nonrecurring revenues to stabilize its financial position in recent years. The rating agency also revised its outlook on the 73,000-population city to negative from stable,” Bond Buyer’s Paul Burton reported. “The rating also incorporates the city’s elevated debt profile with rapidly escalating debt service and its modest pension liability,’ the rating agency said Tuesday.”

In contrast to Moody’s downgrade four months into the 2018 fiscal year, Standard & Poor’s has previously affirmed  a more favorable A-plus rating for New Britain after upgrading the city four notches through two upgrades.   Moody’s last assessment came in 2014.

According to the Bond Buyer story:

Moody’s said the negative outlook reflects the short-term challenge New Britain will face to match recurring revenues with recurring expenditures while managing its debt service pegged to spike through fiscal 2021. New Britain, said Moody’s, could earn an upgrade through a sustained trend of structurally balanced operations without one-shots, a material reduction in debt burden, growth in its tax base or an improved resident wealth and income profile.  By contrast, continuing reliance on nonrecurring revenues, erosion of its financial position, taking on more debt or deterioration of New Britain’s tax base or wealth profile could lead to a downgrade.

The Moody’s downgrade may be related to action taken by the Common Council prior to the end of the 2017 fiscal year at the behest of the Stewart administration when debt payments were deferred in the last fiscal year pushing the debt into this year and succeeding years when interest rates on the city’s borrowing will be accelerating.

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Did Stewart Get A Prohibited Campaign Freebie In Mailing Of Car Tax Bills?

Posted in city government, city politics and government, ethics, municipal budget, Republicans, Tax Policy by nbpoliticus on September 2, 2017

By John McNamara

New Britain motor vehicle owners finally got their bills on September 1 along with  a glowing missive from Mayor Erin Stewart that makes the case for her re-election.

The city held up auto tax notices this year, blaming the state budget impasse for the two month delay. Uncertain was whether the auto levy would be lowered to 32 mills or stay at 37.  Given the state deficit then and now,  it would have been a safe bet to go with the 37 mill rate in July rather than wait.  The $241.5  million municipal budget for the year that began July 1st is based on what New Britain got from the state in the 2017 fiscal year.

In a city election year the delay in mailing tax bills is giving incumbent Stewart a prohibited taxpayer-funded freebie — an expensive city-wide mailing to everyone who owns a car or truck — to boost her campaign closer to the election.

Don’t expect Stewart and her full-time image team in the Mayor’s office  to miss an incumbent’s prerogative of using public funds to deliver a not so subtle piece of campaign promotion. Normally there’d be nothing wrong with it.  It’s done here and in many places all the time — an advantage to incumbents in local races with no public financing

Brochure advancing Mayor Stewart’s candidacy sent with motor vehicle tax bills this week. State law bars use of public funds for candidate promotions within three months of elections.

The issue usually arises over “franking privileges” for state and federal lawmakers who send their own positive mailers back to their districts on accomplishments and legislation.

At issue here is whether Stewart used the good offices of the Tax Collector to promote her candidacy within three months of an election.  That’s where the Connecticut General Statutes come in. State law prohibits any use of taxpayer money by incumbents within 90 days of an election for self promotion.

From Connecticut general statutes 9-610

(d) (1) No incumbent holding office shall, during the three months preceding an election in which he is a candidate for reelection or election to another office, use public funds to mail or print flyers or other promotional materials intended to bring about his election or reelection.

Using her campaign slogan “Leading The Way” in the taxpayer-funded brochure, Stewart cites saving the city from fiscal ruin, good bond ratings, reorganizing city hall departments “to find efficiencies and improve customer service and “a continuous commitment to provide our teachers and our children with the proper tools for learning and exploring.”  The official message is a carbon copy of what can be found on Stewart’s campaign website.

Any and all of the Stewart’s tax mailer assertions, of course, can be challenged in an election year.  A closer look at the  municipal budget shows higher spending  trumps efficiency at City Hall. A hefty jump in interest payments looms on short-term borrowing because Stewart and the Common Council deferred on paying bills coming due last year. And that  “continuous commitment” to education?  It’s  hard to find in a Stewart budget that continues to spend more at City Hall but didn’t add a dime to schools in the current budget.

In politics timing can be everything and can determine what is allowed and what isn’t under the law.

By incorporating her campaign promotion in the late auto tax notices , Mayor Stewart ignored the law that bans incumbents from using public funds “to mail or print flyers or other promotional materials” for reelection.

 

 

GOP Alderman Hits School Board On Salaries But Rubber Stamps Pay Hikes, More Spending At City Hall

Posted in city government, New Britain Republicans, public education, Uncategorized by nbpoliticus on August 5, 2017

 

By John McNamara

The sometimes fragile relations between City Hall  and the Board of Education took a backward step this week over complaints from Ward 2 Republican Alderman Kristian Rosado appearing in the New Britain City Journal.

Rosado, in a front-page story in the City Journal , derided a unanimous BOE move on salary increases for three administrators,  pitting Rosado against BOE President and fellow Republican Nick Mercier.

unnamedRosado was joined by two BOE members, Sharon Beloin-Saavedra and Miriam Geraci, who either half-heartedly voted for the increases or didn’t stick around long enough to vote on the matter at a July 24th meeting.  Geraci, absent for the vote, objected because of uncertainty over the amount of Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) funds the city will receive in the unresolved state budget.  In a City Journal editorial, Editor Robin Vinci, often a mouthpiece for the Stewart administration on many issues, sided with Rosado.

The BOE, however,  unanimously approved three salary increases — a revenue neutral move, according to Mercier, because of a $49,000 cut in Assistant Superintendent Paul Salina’s compensation.  Receiving salary hikes were Chief Financial Officer Kevin Kane, Talent Officer Dr. Shuana Tucker and Assistant Talent Officer, Dr. Nicole Sanders, the principal of the North End School, who was promoted to the position.

 

City Journal Editor Robin Vinci, apparently confusing Dr. Sanders with someone else, falsely reported that Sanders is a member of the BOE.  By law, school employees cannot serve on the elected board.

Mercier, quoted in the City Journal, said “the chief financial officer is taking over as head of three departments, that warranted the salary increase. In terms of the talent office it was partially due to an increase in duties and responsibilities”  and making the salaries “competitive.” Mercier said the move is saving $20,000 in central office spending this year and will reduce administrative costs by $90,000 next year.

But Rosado lambasted the salary levels  as “outrageous and insulting considering that the average resident of New Britain makes under $40,000 a year,” saying more money should be going to classroom support.

By contrast, Rosado, in his capacity as a member of the Common Council, has been a reliable rubber stamp for Mayor’s office salary hikes and major budget increases on the municipal side of the ledger.  He supported Mayor Stewart’s budget that denied a very small increase for city schools.

No one questions Alderman Rosado nor the City Journal for casting a critical eye on how tax dollars are spent. But their critical eyes appear to be only wide open at the Board of Education. They are closed shut when it comes to salary hikes, increasing debt interest and all manner of discretionary spending by the Stewart administration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

City Hall Watch: Deferring Municipal Debt Payment Means Cash Now, Higher Interest Next Year

Posted in city government, municipal budget, New Britain, property tax by nbpoliticus on February 10, 2017

By John McNamara

The Stewart administration is shifting $6 million from a scheduled payment on the city’s rising municipal debt— creating an election year windfall to avert yet another tax increase.  The Common Council approved what representatives of William Blair & Company, the city’s bond counsel, called a “re-structuring” of  a $28 million bond at a special meeting  on January 11th.

Expect Mayor Stewart to trumpet a “savings” to avert her third property tax hike or claim a hefty boost to the city’s “rainy day fund” as municipal budget talks get underway in a few weeks.

CITY HALL WATCH

CITY HALL WATCH

But using the city’s credit card to increase cash flow in the current fiscal year is hardly a savings or proof of Stewart’s fiscal prudence. It obligates the city to shell out more to bond holders in the out years. Pushing debt obligations to 2018 and beyond  guarantees all the borrowed money (short and long-term debt for capital projects and allowable expenses) will come with considerably higher interest rates.

“We’ve been seeing  the rates increasing from last year,” William Blair’s Richard Thivierge told the Common Council. “Some debt rates have gone up 60 to 80 basis points.”

Ward 5 Alderman Carlo Carlozzi, who extensively questioned bond counsel along with Alderman Manny Sanchez on January 11, expressed some frustration on the new deal with creditors which will lower the payment this year from $28,315,000 to $21, 600,000. “The city always seems to be restructuring its debt.”  Carlozzi said,  wondering out loud if moving the debt was kicking the can down the road at higher interest rates.

Bond counsel representatives explained that the city is not re-financing — which is usually done to get lower rates — but is deferring the debt a portion of which stems from borrowing  in Stewart’s first two terms. Because of the city’s “high debt base” Thivierge said the city needs to “levelize” its debt service by slowing down its payments. Always the obliging middle man in extending the debt, Thivierge called it “budgetary prudence.” In political terms that’s a euphemism for not having to raise taxes or cut services in an election year.  Pressed by Carlozzi’s questions, the Mayor,  Finance Director Lori Granato and Bond Counsel tacitly acknowledged the city could pay down its debt at a lower interest rate this year, but that the extra $6 million will be needed in the next budget after July 1.

Obligating the city to pay more for debt at the start of 2017 stems from structural factors that cash-strapped cities face. New Britain, according to the state Office of Policy and Management (OPM), is the slowest growing grand list in the state with 97% of the land developed and a considerable amount of real property owned by the state or nonprofit institutions. This inelastic tax base, reliance on the property tax and dependence on state aid that this year exceeds $100 million makes the current system unsustainable no matter who is mayor or serves on the Common Council. All of this is why the bond lenders hold cities in a cycle of  borrowing for needed capital improvements not favorable to fiscal stability and residents. Raising taxes is good. Cutting services is better. Selling off municipal assets (such as watershed) is even better for improving your bond rating and pleasing the lenders on Wall Street.

The situation has been made worse in New Britain by “structural deficits” first identified by Mayor Tim O’Brien when he took office in 2011 and quickly acknowledged by Erin Stewart when she succeeded O’Brien despite her politicking that the budget mess was created entirely by O’Brien in one term.

Both mayors pointed to the four terms of former Mayor Tim Stewart who, with the acquiescence of Democratic common councils between 2003 and 2010, relied on one-time fixes and phantom sales of land.  With increases in spending and freezing the tax rate year after year during the first Mayor Stewart’s terms,  a financial hole was created that the city is still climbing out of.

“We had an issue a few years back when someone came into office and said there were structural problems in the budget,” said Carlozzi at the bond authorization meeting, alluding to former Mayor O’Brien sounding the alarm more than five years ago. “That person was heavily criticized. We now have heard for the last three years that we have structural issues with the budget. That individual was correct.”

As Alderman Carlozzi made clear at the Council meeting paying off your credit card debt sooner rather than later would be a good thing.  In 2017, however, the restructuring of debt is a way to paint a hunky-dory financial picture that relies on the city’s mountain of debt getting higher.  What is especially misleading is the “rainy day” or “tax stabilization” fund being counted in the millions of dollars. Implying that the surplus stems from more efficiencies and prudent fiscal management as Stewart boasts is false. It is based almost entirely on restructuring borrowed money and a 2014 property tax increase — the largest in city history.

The bottom line is that in a municipal election year all that glitters is not gold when it comes to city finances. Bond authorizations cannot be used to meet current operations only capital improvements.  But in New Britain and other financially struggling cities increasing debt costs for ready cash carries a heavy price tag due and payable sooner rather than later.

 

City Hall Watch: Stewart Wants More Money For Tilcon Watershed Study; Costs To Exceed $350K

Posted in city government, environmental protection, New Britain, Uncategorized, water resources by nbpoliticus on December 12, 2016

By John McNamara

The Stewart administration is seeking an additional $17,500 for an  environmental study of Tilcon Inc.’s  long-term plan to lease city watershed for trap rock mining.

The extra cost is up for consideration at the December 14th Common Council meeting and follows the June 2016 Common Council approval of a $337,000 no-bid contract to Glastonbury-based Lenard Engineering, a contractor the city has frequently used on water supply issues.

The request for more money from a favored contractor of the Stewart administration stems from the original scope of the study commissioned by the city.  That engineering survey was quickly deemed inadequate by both the regional Water Planning Council (WPC) and the state Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) when members of those councils learned about the agreement with Lenard and opponents of Tilcon’s expansion project raised objections.

Environmental officials, though allowing the city to engage Lenard Engineering last summer, have questioned the “independence” of the firm and chastised the city for the original scope of work which failed to address environmental concerns.

The Tilcon expansion, unsuccessfully sought nine years ago during the first Stewart Administration, will need state approval in order for Tilcon to extract the valuable igneous rock known as trap rock on 131 acres of protected watershed that is in close proximity to the city’s Shuttle Meadow reservoir.

from Protect Our Watersheds CT

from Protect Our Watersheds CT

The new scope of work, according to the council resolution, entails “an enhanced, four-season ecological study.”  The original scope of work, rejected by the CEQ, was set for 15 weeks and left out critical factors in assessing the impacts of expanded Tilcon mining on forest land and the fragile ecology that sustains wetlands in the city-owned regional water system. Apparently the $337,000 isn’t enough for Lenard Engineering to do what it is supposed to do for a true  environmental assessment.

Mayor Stewart, who continues to face strong public opposition about the pending sale of the 1.5 million gallon a day Patton Brook Well as drought conditions force the city to buy water from the Metropolitan District Commission, cites the revenue  ($15 million) the city would obtain from a multi million dollar lease and the long-term benefits of Ireland-based Tilcon creating a small reservoir over the next generation. That reservoir would provide no more than 160,000 gallons a day by the year 2050.

Since Tilcon revived its expansion project this year Stewart has been its biggest cheerleader at first pushing for completion of the study without measuring the ecological impact.  She originally sought to have the study wrapped up this fall.

Her administration has also engaged Gaffney Bennett Associates, a high powered New Britain-based lobbying firm, on behalf of the city on the issue at the same time Gaffney Bennett works for Tilcon Inc. to grease the governmental skids for project approval. Those relationships raise blatant conflicts of interest that have been ignored by both state and city governments.

Attorney Paul Zagorsky, an opponent of the Tilcon expansion and part of a multi-town coalition of citizens (Protect Our Watersheds CT and the Bradley Mountain Alliance), called  out the Stewart administration for its conflicts and  lack of transparency in an August 7th New Britain Herald letter to the editor:

“In her July 28th letter to the WPC the mayor states she was ‘dismayed to learn that the CEQ passed a motion yesterday rescinding their approval of Lenard Engineering.’ While Gilbert Bligh, head of the city’s Water Department was at that CEQ meeting, he did not speak, no one from the city did. I am dismayed the city has withheld and/or provided misleading information to the public and the state, that the Lenard study is a Tilcon quarry feasibility study and not an environmental study, that Lenard is a long time contractor for the city and not ‘independent,’ and that the city is working with Tilcon’s lobbyists on this.”

The absence of  transparency and obvious conflicts of interest around the Stewart administration and water issues should prompt the Common Council to demand more accountability. That includes asking  how much has been expended so far by Lenard Engineering and why $17,500 more is necessary.

The state law adopted this year requires an “independent” study about Tilcon’s expansion and what New Britain’s long-term water needs are. The spirit and letter of that law and the laws protecting the watershed need to be followed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Referendum Question 3 Obscures Charter Change On Granting Pay Raises To Elected Officials, Accelerated Water Bill Payments

Posted in City Charter, city government, city politics and government by nbpoliticus on August 26, 2016

By John McNamara

The Common Council’s Republican Caucus Leader, Daniel Salerno, likes to preach to citizens who speak at public participation that they ought to stay, not leave after speaking on an issue, to watch the councilors “make the sausage” on selling city assets cheap, adopting a new policy or making budget decisions.

CITY HALL WATCH

CITY HALL WATCH

Salerno’s invitation to stay carries with it a strong  undertone of condescension:  the implication being that he and his GOP caucus know more and care more than any of the residents coming in to voice their concerns.  When it comes to city charter change and one of the  questions on November’s ballot, however, Salerno and his GOP caucus don’t want you to see the sausage being made at all.

Two of the three ballot questions are straightforward: Shall the terms of office for Mayor and Tax Collector go from two years to four years in 2017? Question 3, however, asks voters to adopt 11 separate changes.  Not to worry, says Salerno, Q3 is only about “housekeeping” and”technical” alterations.  There’s always the rarely noticed small print posted on the wall before going into the polling booth that you can read.

In an August 13th Sunday editorial, the New Britain Herald saw through the Stewart Administration- Salerno obfuscation for what it is. “And, if the question goes forth in its approved form, we can’t help but wonder what a voter who agrees with some of the changes but not others will do. Do voters swallow hard and say yes, ignoring objections to some proposals? Or do they vote down all of the changes, rather than approve one they find objectionable? Alderman Emmanuel Sanchez pointed out this very dilemma before he cast a dissenting vote.”

Concerns expressed in the editorial are justified. Question 3 is a menu of alterations to the city’s governing document. True. Some are technical and minor. The Board of Public Works, for example, is sensibly put back in the charter when the last charter change removed it. In succeeding years the Council has had to re-establish public works and building commissions by ordinance because the last charter referendum eliminated all but six commissions.

Another change proposes that municipal budgets are to be posted on the city website and published within seven days. This guarantees sunshine in the age of the internet when the city’s website is often weeks and months behind in posting public information. It does, however, change the publication  in a newspaper from four to seven days — a penny-wise and pound foolish move designed to extract minor savings but that may leave daily newspapers out.

Other elements of Question 3  are redundant and pertain to mayoral and tax collector terms already covered in Questions 1 and 2. Arguably they don’t need to be included at all but are loaded onto the ballot question when the issue has already been addressed.

Of greater concern are changes that are fraught with financial implications for taxpayers and practices at City Hall that deserve to  stand on their own.

All are buried  within one broad question: “Shall the City Charter be amended to make changes to conform to state statutes and make technical, administrative and other changes and clarifications?”

On closer examination certain amendments beg for more information for voters to make anything approaching an informed decision on them.  Unfortunately that information is even absent in the explanatory text provided by the Town and City Clerk that voters headed to  the polls to vote for President aren’t likely to ever see anyway.

By way of examples here are several key amendments to the current charter:

  • One fine print change allows the Common Council to “review, establish, and act upon rates of compensation for elected officials in every even-numbered year.  This would replace the current ordinance that establishes a Council compensation committee to periodically review salaries of the Mayor and other elected officials  and that would revise compensation in the next elected term.
  • Another amendment allows pensions for certain elected officials by revising the definition of an elected official to include  a person who was appointed  by the Common Council to fill a vacancy between elections.
  • Two additional amendments empower the Board of Water Commissioners to change the billing cycle from semi-annually to monthly or quarterly payable within 30 days and to add 1.5% per month interest charges on delinquent bills. Arguably the Mayor and Council who should be responsible for approving changes are apparently taken off the hook when accelerating payments and charging interest are mandated in the charter. Voters need to be informed about what’s in place now and the issue deserves to stand on its own in a ballot question.

Provisions that relate to the compensation of elected officials, the granting of public pensions  and the manner and method of how citizens pay their water bills, among other issues,  are all fair game when it comes to revising the City Charter.    But they constitute more than “technicalities” and “conformance”  to state statutes. They should have been put on the ballot with greater clarity — a clarity  that will be missing on the November 8th ballot when you get to Question 3.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Selling Of Patton Brook Well: Will New Britain Get A Fair Price To Help Southington Address Its Water Crisis?

Mayor Stewart’s Lowered $1 Million Price Drastically Undervalues Patton Brook Well 

By John McNamara

A Monday, July 11th public hearing at New Britain City Hall will take up a proposed sale of the city’s Patton Brook Well in Southington as that town’s water commission faces growing challenges to address its need for water in the sprawling suburban community of 42,000.

The sale of the well — part of New Britain’s extensive and coveted regional water assets — would be an unprecedented and controversial move,  breaking with longstanding policy of leasing water rights to Southington and others in the region, but retaining city ownership for the long-term.

Hearing Notice near Patton Brook Well (photo: www.myrecordjournal.com)

Hearing Notice near Patton Brook Well photo: http://www.myrecordjournal.com

In 2014 Erin Stewart unsuccessfully pushed selling Patton Brook Well to Southington for a $1.2 million price saying that the well didn’t figure in the city’s water reserve plan. Southington’s Board of Water Commissioners would then pursue repair of the Patton Brook pumping station for the town’s exclusive use. Previously, New Britain had leased the well to Southington for $107,000 a year — an arrangement that lasted for more than 30 years.

The 2014 Common Council narrowly rejected that 2014 sale siding with city residents who wanted to preserve the well as part of New Britain’s regional water resources.

The Stewart administration, with the 2016 Council more favorable to her policies, is back. The asking price now, however, is inexplicably lower — $200,000 less than Southington’s $1.2 million offer in 2014.

How the Stewart Administration arrived at or agreed to the lower $1 million price should be a question on the minds of residents and the Common Council.  By all accounts the Patton Brook Well is a prodigious water supply and a source within Southington’s borders that the town’s water commission badly needs to bring on-line.

Southington’s Water Department, for example, has imposed voluntary restrictions  “in order to conserve water supply during the unusual warm weather conditions and lack of rain fall.” according to the town’s website.  Southington’s system is comprised of three reservoirs and seven wells which in their present condition cannot keep up with either residential or commercial development in town. According to New Britain resident William Ostapchuk’s research on Southington and New Britain’s water resources, three of the town’s wells have long been dormant because of pollution. “Wells 4,5 and 6 are not used because the drinking water provided by each was exposed to contamination by toxic pollutants from two sites, a landfill and Solvents Recovery of New England.” Ostapchuk found. “Both became Superfund cleanup sites.”  Southington’s contamination problems led to the original leasing of the Patton Brook Well from New Britain decades ago.

The Town of Southington, in a December 2014 proposal from the water commission chairman  to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, stated that the town “is struggling to provide current and future water supply, and will not be able to provide water to its 42,000 residents and businesses unless the community can address contamination in its present water supply, and establish sustainable, expanded water supplies for the future.” The December 2014 request to the Army Corps of Engineers sought an additional $7 million in funds to augment the $9.42 million already authorized by Congress for water improvements in Southington.  The additional project costs include $1.5 million for Patton Brook predicated  on Southington’s purchase from New Britain.

The real value of Patton Brook Well – whether it is to be leased or sold – should be calculated on its capacity to produce potable water for residents and businesses. At no time have New Britain officials, including Stewart and Water Services Director and Southington resident Gil Bligh,  provided a professional or independent appraisal of the Patton Brook Well’s actual value in setting a sale price of $1.2 million two years ago and $1 million this year.  Basing a sale or lease on a real property assessment of the pumping station and the small amount of acreage alone is absurd and irresponsible.

Patton Brook, according to official estimates, is capable of holding and providing 1.2 million gallons a day from its deep well.  That kind of volume suggests that the proposed sale price of $1 million shorts New Britain out of a fair and reasonable deal by a big margin.  Current water rates in Connecticut towns served  by other regional water authorities provide a  financial yardstick to determine whether the proposed $1 million deal between New Britain and Southington accurately reflects the well’s value.   Patton Brook can pump 1.2 million gallons per day or 438 million gallons a year so long as water levels remain stable. Using Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) rates in towns served by MDC ($2.53 per 100 cubic feet or 748 gallons) Patton Brook would generate $1.48 million in user fees on an annual basis.  Applying the residential rate of Connecticut Water that serves 56 communities in the state ($5.91 per 100 cubic feet or 748 gallons), user fees would total $3.4 million for water going into homes and businesses from Patton Brook.

There is no question that New Britain’s water supply is a resource that needs to be shared on a regional basis. And Patton Brook, either leased or sold, is the best vehicle to address Southington’s deteriorating and inadequate water system.  But the situation also requires that New Britain officials, who serve a financially distressed and over taxed city of 72,000, obtain a fair price to address its own short- and long-term water needs. The $1 million sale price is neither fair nor reasonable given what Erin Stewart is proposing to irrevocably give up at a lower price that does not represent Patton Brook’s actual worth.

Related news stories:

 

 

City Hall Watch: Rep. Sanchez Condemns Charter Change Eliminating City Council Districts

Posted in City Charter, city government, city politics and government, civil rights by nbpoliticus on February 10, 2016

 

 

By John McNamara

The Common Council is set to create a Charter Commission at its February 10th meeting to consider sweeping changes in municipal government at the behest of Republican Mayor Erin Stewart.

The Stewart administration, taking advantage of a Republican Council majority, seeks to eliminate neighborhood representation on the city council in favor of an all at large system that would replace the current 15-member council composed of two members from five council districts (wards) and five at large members.

Proponents of the ward system, who fought a long battle to gain neighborhood representation on the Council, maintain that the current make up of the Council provides geographic and racial diversity in the legislative body in a city that is increasingly diverse.

Rep. Bobby Sanchez

Rep. Bobby Sanchez

Council districts give residents accessible voices on the Council for every area of the city, not just the west side whose upper income residents dominated city councils under the at large system to the exclusion of other parts of the city and the city’s growing Latino and African-American citizenry.  Republicans, led by Registrar of Voters Peter Gostin, have sought a return to the at large system in which five members of the minority party are guaranteed seats whether or not they receive a majority or plurality of votes.

State Rep. Bobby Sanchez (D-25) is taking strong exception to Mayor Stewart’s move to end ward councillors and opposes the call for charter change to eliminate neighborhood representation on the Council. At the same time Sanchez linked the charter proposal to a plan drafted by Republican Registrar Gostin to eliminate polling places in his district.

“I’m very disturbed but not surprised that Republicans would try to suppress the vote by their attempts to close polling places and now, in particular, by opening the charter to eliminate the ward system. In the past, the at large system did not reflect the diversity of our city. With the ward system not only do we have a more diverse council, we also have city wide representation. It is my hope that the people of New Britain will see the injustice and make their voices heard in the coming days and months.”

The Republican Stewart’s agenda for the Charter Commission, in addition to re-establishing an all at large council system, includes other recommendations:

  • eliminating the election of the Tax Collector and Town and City Clerk by popular vote in favor of appointment by political patronage.
  • Increasing the mayoral term from two to four years [ironically the 2015 Democratic Mayoral Candidate John McNamara was the only candidate to support this idea last year]
  • A compensation plan for “non-union” appointed and elected officials including the Mayor and the aforementioned patronage jobs of tax collector and town and city clerk as well as the Registrars of Voters.  The provision for raising the salary of Registrars of Voters raises a potential and immediate conflict of interest since one of Stewart’s Republican picks for the commission is none other than Peter Gostin.
  • the creation of a quasi governmental “Golf Authority” to run Stanley Golf Course removing direct control by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

In addition to Republican Registrar of Voters Gostin, a leading advocate for restricting voter access and closing polling places since his election as the GOP’s chief election official, Republican picks for the Charter panel include Catherine Cheney and Efrain Rosado. Democrats proposed for the charter commission include Attorneys Adrian Baron, Michael Carrier and Mary Pokorski ( a municipal employee whose job security undoubtedly depends on agreeing with Team Stewart).

The resolution to create a charter commission is sponsored by Republican caucus leaders Danny Salerno and Jaime Giantonio. It stipulates that the Commission will issue a report by June 3rd to put a charter change referendum on the November ballot.

The Common Council meeting on February 10th begins with public participation in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 27 West Main Street.

 

Inside City Hall: Stewart’s Civil Service Commission Abuses Power, Violates Charter

Posted in city government, city politics and government, ethics, Republicans by nbpoliticus on January 15, 2015

The Civil Service Commission’s  efforts to remove from office and impose fines on Council President Pro Tem Suzanne Bielinski over the Council’s hiring of her niece, Jessica   Gerratana.  as the Common Council secretary,  is a costly misuse of government for partisan purposes.

Ignoring  the City Charter , the Commission voted last  October 6th for the ouster of the long-serving  Bielinski  and  for a $2,500 fine on the alderwoman after  Commission members agreed to take up  a complaint and the unsubstantiated accusations of  Ward 5 Republican Ald. Louis Salvio.  The Commission’s latest gambit came last week when, upon advice of lawyers from  Murtha Cullina, it backed away from recommendations for  a $2,500 fine and the removal of Bielinski , referring the matter “informally”  to the Common Council for action, but still insisting on a $250 penalty.

Civil Service Commissioners, acting without a shred of legal standing  and with the tacit approval of the Stewart Administration and its Corporation Counsel,  attempted to set  itself up as judge and jury of Alderwoman Bielinski’s conduct. Despite high-paid legal advice to back off, the commission continued to double down on its illegitimate actions.

Nearly forgotten in this charade of an “investigation”  and abuse of power by the commission is the earlier decision by the city’s ethics commission to throw out Salvio’s complaint for insufficient evidence.  By charter and ordinance,   the ethics commission is the only municipal body sanctioned to consider conflicts of interest by the Mayor and Council members.

By retaining an outside firm to avoid any “conflict of interest” in advising the Civil Service Commission,   Corporation Counsel  Gennaro Bizzarro side-stepped his non-partisan responsibilities in favor of rewarding political friends.

His choice of a law firm reinforces the partisan nature of the Civil Service Commission’s actions against Bielinski.  Murtha Cullina’s partners are Republican-leaning, having represented New Britain Republicans in the Ward 5 ballot case in 2013 and serving as “observers” on Election Day last November in an intrusive attempt to challenge Democratic voters at the polls.

Attorney Bizzarro knows very well that one of the city’s full-time staff attorneys could have interpreted the City Charter and rendered  an opinion in a heartbeat.  The City Charter could not be clearer on this issue. A commission in the executive branch of government has no role in the censuring or removal of a Council member.

With litigation and a grievance pending Ald, Salvio and the Republicans are heading for the exits and doing damage control. The immediate and unfortunate result, however, is that legal costs to the city are likely to escalate by the tens of thousands of dollars because of the partisan use of government  by New Britain Republicans. It’s budget time and not a good time to be playing politics on the taxpayer’s dime

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Zherka Arrest A Reminder Of Yellow Journalism And Dark Money In 2013 City Campaign

Posted in Campaign Finance, city government, courts, Hard Hittin' New Britain, Housing by nbpoliticus on September 28, 2014

The arrest and jailing of former Farmington Hills Apartment Complex owner Sam Zherka earlier this month  was a fresh reminder of the collusion between and among New Britain Republicans, the New Britain City Journal and a small group of out-of-town landlords throughout  2013.

Zherka faces a long indictment for alleged bank loan fraud, income tax fraud and witness tampering .  Two of the bank fraud charges relate to his ownership of Farmington Hills complex in the Ledgecrest Avenue area.

In New Britain, Zherka was a ring leader  for out-of-town landlords who, in Zherka’s own words, put together $100,000 last year to “wipe out” Mayor O’Brien and Democrats on the Common Council.

The political spending began at a raucous November 2012 City Hall hearing on proposed fees for absentee landlords to pay for housing and code enforcement.  Zherka admitted to transporting tenants and paying them to go to City Hall to oppose the policy. Thereafter the assault on the truth in the pages of the City Journal began.

At a CT Property Owners Association meeting at Stanley Golf Course in November 2012 former Mayor Tim Stewart  gave a glowing introduction to  Zherka who then announced the raising of $100,000 to “wipe out” elected officials in New Britain.

At the same meeting, current Corporation Counsel Gennaro Bizzarro ( this year’s 24th District Republican for state representative), addressed the CTPOA group. Bizzarro, in addition to his City Hall duties, has represented the CTPOA through his law practice. Mayor Stewart and other members of the Republican slate addressed CTPOA meetings pledging to repeal absentee landlord fees.

Following Zherka’s arrest this month,  the New Britain Republican Town Committee  blocked the video of Stewart, Zherka and Bizzarro speaking together; covering up the off the books financial help and gutter political action carried out by Zherka on their behalf last year.  Last year’s cash cow and friendly political provocateur is this year’s liability.

The Waterbury-based Connecticut Property Owners Alliance (CTPOA), led by Bob DeCosmo , later established a political action committee to finance a campaign against Democrats. But the CTPOA PAC was merely a front group. Very little campaign money was raised in legitimate and legal ways by the out-of-town landlord PAC for Stewart or any other candidates.

The  “$100,000” announced by Zherka  almost certainly was poured into the New Britain City Journal to enable it editor and publisher, Robin Vinci, to mail her publication into households week after week. Postage costs alone run into the thousands of dollars for one mailing to New Britain households. Zherka’s largesse to Vinci also included the services of a “reporter” from his New York newspaper, to write a laudatory piece on Zherka

Scurrilous is too kind a word to describe the numerous editions of the City Journal throughout 2013 and into 2014 which contained misrepresentations and inflammatory language against O’Brien and members of the Common Council.

Perhaps the most damning example of spreading falsehoods and Vinci’s vitriol is found in January 24, 2013  story in the City Journal offering a $10,000 reward for Mayor O’Brien’s arrest and conviction “to clean up a corrupt and dirty administration.”

After extensively quoting Zherka attacking the O’Brien administration, Vinci took leave of her questionable status as a journalist to write: “Anyone who has any information  is asked to send it to: The New Britain City Journal, PO Box 2111, New Britain, CT 06050 and it will be forwarded to Taxpayers and Associates affiliated with Farmington Hills.”

Zherka and the CTPOA also created a now defunct website, http://www.savenewbritain.com,  that spread the City Journal’s false and inflammatory information on the city administration and council Democrats last year.

Don’t count on Sam Zherka’s name appearing in the pages of the City Journal nor at the GOP town committee site anymore. It’s an open question, however, whether Zherka’s  ill-gotten money and publishing resources may still be underwriting the City Journal that has morphed into a newsletter for Mayor Erin Stewart in the first year of her administration.

Residents of all political stripes committed to the rule of law and civility in local politics can only hope that dark campaign money,  voter intimidation and yellow journalism masquerading as community journalism will not be repeated in our city.

What occurred during the  2013 municipal election was an assault on democracy for which many questions remain to be answered.

From http://www.newbritaindemocrat.org

Correction: An earlier version of the post referenced a CTPOA meeting”at the height” of the 2013 campaign. The meeting was held in November 2012