NB Politicus

The Day After: Should fireworks be free or come with a fee?

Posted in city government, municipal budget, New Britain, Parks and Recreation by nbpoliticus on July 5, 2021

The 4th of July Show Tab This Year Was $60K and $10 A Car Load

By John McNamara

No one can deny that fireworks on the Fourth of July brings a community together. It is America’s birthday tradition that can awe and delight children or the child in all of us. And after 15 months of social distancing because of COVID, New Britain’s 4th was a welcome return to normalcy.

The City of New Britain obliged for the pyrotechnics this year putting up $60,000 of your tax money at the June 23rd Common Council meeting. The transfer of funds provided $24,999 for the show and $35,001 in overtime and salaries. Alderman-At Large Chris Anderson was the sole Council vote against the appropriation. His vote, however, was not about being a killjoy. I’m hoping he took in the show from his Buell Street home’s front yard just a block or so from the rockets red glare without paying the $10 fee.

“I voted no because I am concerned about this expenditure given our other budget needs and because the event will not be free,” wrote Anderson in one of his regular Facebook updates on Council business.

New Britain’s regionally popular “Great American Boom”, held at Stanley Quarter Park until last year and free to all, has been raised as a budget issue in years past. Some of the costs previously were met with fees on vendors and private contributions. Insurance man and former Alderman Carlo Carlozzi, for example, led the way a few years back in securing a major grant from Liberty Mutual to cover expenses. For the most part the bulk of expenses, however, depend on public appropriations.

New Britain was one of a handful of communities that went on with the show last year despite COVID concerns. Like this year the “drive in fireworks show” at Willow Brook Park near the baseball stadium required pre-registration at $10 per car load, a nominal fee that raised some but not a lot for the city’s Fireworks Fund. It’s been one of several public events that the Parks and Recreation Department assesses for admission. The fireworks fee undoubtedly had more to do with social distancing than revenue but it should be said that it could have been made free to city residents.

The change of venue these last two years also returned the city’s fireworks back to Willow Brook where it once was held. That’s a welcome change that should be made permanent. Holding an event drawing in excess of 20,000 people at Stanley Quarter in the residential Belvedere neighborhood creates a parking nightmare and heightened public safety concerns (Full disclosure: it’s my neighborhood).

Ideally, if the city restores the Great American Boom to a free-to-all event next year it ought to be a Greater New Britain event with costs shared by surrounding towns with a healthy dose of corporate, civic-minded philanthropy.

Alderman Anderson’s points on nickel and diming residents and striking a balance on budget priorities are well taken. Blowing $60K on its own on America’s birthday to light up New Britain night sky is a lot for a financially stressed city government dependent on borrowing.

School Building Committee Resolution Curtails Checks and Balances on School Construction Projects

By John McNamara

A controversial resolution that removes Common Council and Board of Education approval of all contracts and spending on school construction projects came back to the Common Council April 28th meeting and was approved on a party line vote.

The resolution, authored by Republican caucus members Daniel Salerno and Sharon Beloin-Saavedra and revised at the April 15th Consolidation Committee meeting, removes key language that requires that contracts and expenditures on multi-million dollar school projects are “subject to the approval of the board of education and common council.” Instead, it vests control of School Building Committee (SBC) appointments to the Mayor, leaving the Council with two members on the seven-member committee.

According to the new resolution the SBC will “engage, select, and enter into or continue all necessary contracts with contractors, architects, landscape architects, or engineers, and within the limits of the appropriations made by the council, this committee shall engage and fix the salary of one or more construction representatives.”

Salerno and Beloin-Saavedra, acting on behalf of Mayor Erin Stewart and willingly diminishing the Common Council’s role, cite mayoral powers in the City Charter granting appointment power for all “boards and commissions” to the Mayor as a justification for the sweeping changes that hand the purse strings and contracting over to the SBC for school renovations and construction. They say they are just cleaning up the language in accordance with the charter.

CITY HALL WATCH

As if trying to obscure the intent of the resolution, the revised ordinance has a preamble that implies Common Council members would continue to have a say in SBC meetings and deliberations or, for that matter, any other board or commission using general ordinance language on the access any common council member has to go to a public meeting: “Alderpersons may attend any meetings. The members of the council, or any of them, may attend the regular, special, or other meetings of all boards, commissions, and agencies when, in their discretion, their presence would best serve the interests of the city.”

Unlike boards and commissions mandated by the City Charter, however, the School Building Committee is created by ordinance with purposes and conditions set by the Common Council in accordance with powers granted to the legislative branch (the Council). The mayoral powers justification for ending all BOE and Council oversight on school building projects is both exclusionary and unwise given the large amounts of taxpayer money involved on these projects which are heavily reimbursed by the state and its bonding authority. Most recently makeovers of the Smalley and Gaffney schools have cost upwards of $80 million.

Although the lion’s share of funding for any school construction comes from the state, Connecticut law is silent on local school building committees, their powers and composition, according to a legislative analysis on SBCs and school construction. What the analysis does say, however, is that boards of education are ultimately responsible and must “make a continuing study of the need for school facilities and of a long-term school building program.” State statutes do no specify how local school boards must carry out their responsibility for maintaining school buildings. Nothing either requires or allows a board to, or prevents it from, establishing a permanent committee to oversee school maintenance.”

The revised New Britain resolution makes the Superintendent of Schools an ex-officio member of the SBC which is to say the BOE’s representative is an observer without a vote.

Democratic Alderman at Large Chris Anderson opposed the revised ordinance asserting that it “consolidates power, reduces transparency and eliminates checks and balances.” He was joined by five other Democrats on the Council opposing the move to usurp Common Council and Board of Education authority over public monies they appropriate and are responsible for in the school district’s buildings.

A consequence of the new SBC resolution is that it contributes to a bigger divide between City Hall and the BOE. New Britain’s close to last ranking in how much the municipal government contributes to public schools is a perennial and contentious issue at budget time every year and this year is no exception. Politically, it serves the Mayor and her Council cohorts well to disparage the BOE by implying it wastes money as they engage in tax-cut demagoguery. During the Common Council’s discussion of the SBC resolution, for example, Alderwomen Beloin-Saavedra, a former BOE President, didn’t help BOE-City Hall cooperation. She disparagingly pointed to the BOE and school administration as the place where more oversight is needed,asking: “Who’s watching the henhouse over there?”

And as with most issues to come before the Council the nine members of the Republican caucus remained rubber stamps for Mayor Stewart, ceding absolute control over the school construction process and the opportunities it presents the city administration for patronage, favors and picking contractors.

Related Post https://nbpoliticus.com/2021/03/08/stewart-seeks-to-exclude-boe-common-council-from-approving-use-of-school-construction-money/

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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Britain Election Postscript: “If Trump wins will I have to leave the country?”

Posted in civil rights, Diversity, Hate Speech, Immigration, New Britain, Presidential Politics, Racism by nbpoliticus on November 27, 2016

“If Trump wins will I have to leave the country?”

The question was asked of me by a Holmes School student when I was leaving the Masjid Al Taqwa mosque on Arch Street on a Sunday evening in August. It didn’t matter that the 5th grader has probably lived in New Britain all his life and that his parents — part of a growing Muslim American community in central CT,  vote and pay taxes.

“No,” I said without hesitation to reassure the Holmes student. “Even if Trump wins you won’t have to leave the country.”

My visit to Masjid Al Taqwa came at the invitation of  Alicia Hernandez Strong, a Weyleyan student, new officer of the Democratic Town Committee and a convert to the Muslim faith.   Evening prayer, a generous ethnic supper and a panel talk on voter registration organized by Strong were part of the evening that ended with that question from the student from Holmes, reflecting his worries and that of his  family and religious community in 2016.

Inscription at Memorial to New Britain 19th century peace activist Elihu Burritt in Franklin Square.

Inscription at Memorial to New Britain 19th century peace activist Elihu Burritt in Franklin Square. (Todesignllc.com)

Over and over again the Republican presidential nominee, amplified by an easily manipulated media,  spread an unfiltered message of exclusion and fear and “change” to make America great again. Campaign rhetoric  devoid of policy and ideas was mainly against people of the Muslim faith and  millions of others without a path to citizenship whenever Donald Trump took the stage.

In the aftermath of the election and Trump’s “win” concerns are escalating. In some places real acts of hate and violence are directed at  those who were the targets of Trump’s dog whistle rants.  His appointments, including Steve Bannon, the wife-beating publisher of  the ultra right and xenophobic Breitbart News, have done little to allay the concern.

Trump’s appeals to fear and exclusion wrapped in an empty economic populism, however, are producing counter measures.  Mayors, police chiefs, civic and religious  leaders, in their words and official actions, are pushing back against the campaign xenophobia that should make a President, even a vulgar demagogue of a President,  think twice about policies that sanction intolerance and bigotry and are a refutation of what Ellis Island was all about.

The mob portion of Trump’s support and maybe even Trump himself, emboldened by the election, will continue to fan hate and division. But there are millions of Trump voters, bothered by flaws in Hillary Clinton’s establishment candidacy or swayed by the fake news vitriol against her–who will want no part of  the hate and incivility that fueled the Trump candidacy.  In New Britain and elsewhere too many of their co-workers and the parents of children they see at the school where their kids go are on Trump’s hit list.

Post-election it’s up to me and you to tell that Muslim American Holmes School boy, or the Mexican “dreamer” student at CCSU seeking a fair path to citizenship or a refugee who got here from a strife-torn land:

No. You don’t have to leave the country because of your religion or where you are from no matter who the President is.  Your city is the “city for all people” and your neighbors won’t let that happen.

John McNamara