Referendum Question 3 Obscures Charter Change On Granting Pay Raises To Elected Officials, Accelerated Water Bill Payments
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.
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.
New Britain’s and SEIU’s Art Perry died this week after an extended and brave battle with cancer at the age of 63.
I knew and will not forget Art as a union organizer of fighting spirit and boundless optimism through too many political and union organizing campaigns to count. He worked at it for 34 years mostly for District 1199 and from 2004 to 2011 as political director for SEIU’s 32BJ – a period of inspiring and successful union drives at public and private employers on behalf of janitors who won better wages and working conditions for the first time.
In New Britain Art Perry, with Susan McKinley Perry, always has been here for progressive candidates and working people, mostly winning and sometimes losing, but always standing up for fairness and social justice. “You are who you hang with,” he quipped last year. And Art Perry was one of us in the labor movement and progressive politics in New Britain.
In 2011 Art joined the CT Labor Department in the commissioner’s office where he applied his organizing skills to public policy and allocating resources to job creation and workplace rights. Notable has been Art Perry’s work to bring the Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) program to Connecticut. JAG is a national non-profit working with state-based organizations delivering supports and interventions to help “most at risk” young people stay in school, get to college and obtain sustainable jobs. Says Liz Dupont-Diehl, the JAG-CT Director: “Art was the heart and soul of Jobs for America’s Graduates, Connecticut. It would not exist without him. He worked tirelessly to bring this program to CT and it has already touched hundreds of young people.” The JAG program has been established at New Britain High School and in other communities in Connecticut since it began.
There are sure to be many war stories and remembrances of Art’s work and life in the days ahead that will let Susan, Art’s sons and family know that they are not alone in their sorrow. “To many people he was a mentor, a leader and a walking vacation if they needed,” posted his son Joshua Perry. “To our family he was an individual of never-ending wisdom, subtle smoothness, and a provider of the deepest love you could find.”
I am better for having known Art Perry because he was able to instill some of that fighting spirit and boundless optimism in me.
Republican Erin Stewart is taking time from her duties at City Hall to jump into today’s Democratic Primary for State Senate and Registrar of Voters, posting a pitch from her official Facebook page to support the challengers.
Acknowledging she “is not a Democrat” Ms. Stewart urged her social media followers to oppose endorsed candidates State Senator Terry Gerratana and Registrar of Voters candidate Mike Trueworthy.
In an earlier post on her personal Facebook page Ms. Stewart resorted to name calling that was caught by Courant Columnist Kevin Rennie on his Daily Ructions blog. Rennie has been a chronicler of Erin Stewart’s foul-mouthed rants and drinking episodes that have been an embarrassment to the city and may come back to haunt the young Republican as she seeks higher office.
In his pursuit of a return to public office Registrar candidate Lucian Pawlak is relying heavily on Republican financial support. A fellow Democratic supporter of Pawlak’s recently asked the former four-term Mayor if he would co-sign a letter to the editor opposing the controversial sale of the city’s Patton Brook Well in Southington that is up for a vote this week at the City Council.. Pawlak initially agreed but purportedly backed off telling his supporter that the Stewarts offered to get his committee contributions for the Democratic Primary. Pawlak, in other words, allowed himself to be bought off on a key public issue.
Beloin-Saavedra, touting her advocacy for education and support of the schools in her challenge, has also embraced Stewart but that embrace has come at a price for what Beloin-Saavedra has said she stands for. When Mayor Stewart illegally attempted to cut $4 million already appropriated for the school budget in her first budget Beloin-Saavedra never said a word in protest, acquiescing to the raid on school funds. That was a disappointment for those who have always admired her BOE leadership and advocacy for education through the years. It took New Britain’s Democratic legislators to block the loss of funds for education.
If nothing else in today’s Democratic Primary Mr. Pawlak and Ms. Beloin-Saavedra are giving new meaning to the acronym DINO – Democrats In Name Only. And contrary to Ms. Stewart’s “people not politics” slogan it’s about politics, pettiness and self aggrandizement on the city’s dime.
‘Donald Trump was part of the problem’: Cleveland’s subprime lesson for Republicans
SOUTHINGTON — A local man who opposes the Tilcon company’s plan to move its quarry operations onto watershed land has scheduled a presentation to outline his concerns Monday night at the Southington Public Library.
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.
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.
Smalley Academy Renovation Cost Jumps To $53m; Public Hearing Wednesday, June 22, At Council Committee
What’s behind a $53 million price tag for renovations to Smalley Academy, a K-5 elementary school near downtown and North-Oak Streets? That question should be on the minds of the Common Council after initial estimates by school officials were closer to $30 million last year. The earlier estimate by school officials was tens of millions of dollars less than the amount now moving through approvals before the project goes to the state for bonding and to the city’s school building committee for bids and construction.
Smalley with an enrollment of 654 students is the next educational building in line for improvements in New Britain. The need for enhancement of the school is not at issue among educators, city officials and State Rep. Bobby Sanchez (D-25) whose district includes the Smalley Academy where more than 70 percent of students are Hispanic. Sanchez and members of the city’s legislative delegation are advocates for state bond support for Smalley. The city receives 80 percent funding from the state when projects pass muster and are approved at the state level. Sanchez, however, says his inquiries to city officials about the project so far have gone unanswered.
At issue is the feasibility plan coming out of the Council’s bonding subcommittee that puts the costs much higher than prior estimates. In the last major New Britain school renovation at Gaffney School – which has a comparable enrollment and size to Smalley Academy – the total cost was $30 million. A former high-level New Britain school administrator says the $53 million price would be more appropriate for new construction at a larger school, not improvements and upgrades to Smalley.
On Wednesday, June 22nd at 6:30 p.m.the City Council’s Committee on Administration, Finance and Law will vote on whether to accept the $53 million appropriation and bond authorization for the school renovation and expansion project. Public comment will be invited prior to the vote at City Hall.
By John McNamara
New Britain’s Registrars of Voters are moving to change polling places in Districts 6 and 13 in time for an August 8th Primary and the November 8th Presidential Election.
Republican Peter Gostin and Democrat Juan Verdu have identified Angelico’s Cafe restaurant on East Main Street to replace the State Armory in Voting District 6 in the 25th Assembly District. Angelico’s is a stone’s throw away from the Armory location which is located at the corner of East Main and Smalley Streets.
In Voting District 13 in the 26th Assembly District the vacant Holy Cross School (Saint John Paul II) is the proposed site for a new polling station. Registrars have contacted the parish to use the school property at the corner of Farmington Avenue and Boulevard to replace the HRA (formerly Ben Franklin School) on Clinton Street.
In letters to Angelico’s and Holy Cross Church the registrars have proposed use of the new sites for $500 each for this year’s voting in what appears to be a temporary move
The pending relocations in two of the city’s 15 voting districts follows a March feasibility study on polling locations presented to the Common Council by the Registrars. The study backed off from a sweeping draft plan developed by Gostin and supported by Verdu that drew strong opposition and a City Hall protest, especially over shutting down on-site voting at the Graham and School Apartments where older and minority voters reside. Democrats argued that radical changes in polling places ahead of the Presidential election would impede voter access. The feasibility study identified the State Armory as the most costly of the polling places and cited parking issues at HRA, the city’s community action agency and Head Start center, as reasons for relocation.
The possible moves in this election cycle to Angelico’s in District 6 and Holy Cross (JPII School) for District 13 appear to be less controversial than what was proposed earlier this year. The draft plan, floated under the guise of saving the city money, raised voter suppression concerns because of the impact on locations in the center of the city. The Registrars, backing down from the original draft plan and any immediate changes, recommended “that any actions to merge, consolidate and/or move district lines and polling locations should be delayed until the 2017 election cycle” in their feasibility study. The relocations in District 6 and 13 are proposed for this year but may be extended.
Polling location changes are generally made only when district lines are re-drawn after the 10-year census that will next be implemented after 2020.
City Charter Referendum: Commission Recommends Three Questions
Final Hearing Is June 1st Before Going To Common Council
A five-member charter commission is recommending three questions to amend the city’s governing document to be put before voters in November. The public will be able to comment on the May 26th Draft Report at a final hearing this week before they are sent to the Common Council.
The public hearing will be held at 6 p.m., Room 201, City Hall, 27 West Main St on Wednesday June 1st.
Questions recommended for the November ballot are:
- Share the term of office of the Mayor be changed from a two-year to a four-year term commencing in the election of 2017?
- Shall the term of office of the Tax Collector be changed from a two-year term to a four-year term commencing in the election of 2017?
- Shall the remainder of the changes to the Charter as recommended by the Charter Revision Commission be approved?
Rejected by the commission were changing the method of electing the common council to a minority representation system, a compensation plan for Mayor and non-union positions and the establishment of a separate golf authority to oversee Stanley Municipal Golf Course. Changing the current ward and at-large system of electing the council drew strong opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. Conversely, the idea of a four-year mayoral term won broad support in public testimony. The commission indicated the charter was not appropriate for changing the compensation of the Mayor and other City Hall officials.
The Common Council will take up the commission report with the option of accepting the proposed questions or adding others to the ballot.
Council Expected To Rubber Stamp Stewart Budget At June 2nd Meeting
3% Tax Hike, 5.6% Spending Increase In Plan For New Fiscal Year
The Common Council will hold a special meeting to adopt the 2016-17 budget on Thursday June 2nd at 6:30 p.m. The Common Council is expected to rubber stamp the administration’s budget that was revised from the FY 17 Budget proposed by the Board of Finance earlier in the year.
The Administration’s $239 million plan for the year that begins on July 1 is a 5.6 increase in spending over this year and would hike the property tax rate from 49 to 50.5 mills or 3 percent.
Tax relief this coming year will come in the form of reduced automobile property taxes as the result of the Democrats in the Legislature reducing the property levy on cars that hits urban residents the hardest. A portion of sales tax revenues will be used to bring tax relief after Republican efforts to kill relief from regressive tax on cars failed.
By John McNamara
The common council meeting of April 27th began on a hopeful note for a community that has been dubbed the “city for all people.”
Ward 4 Alderman Bobby Smedley moved a unanimous resolution to adopt a Compassion Charter, having New Britain join with other cities and countries around the world affirming a belief “to honour (sic) the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”
The commitment to a compassionate city, however, was short-lived.
Within minutes Smedley and the Common Council voted 10 to 5 to adopt an ordinance to prohibit aggressive panhandling, imposing a $99 fine for “aggressive” begging or lying to obtain money.
The move — hastily pushed by the Stewart administration — is intended to more quickly sweep indigent and homeless persons from Central Park and the downtown area now that the refurbished, brick-laid park has been made safe for food vendor trucks.
The controversial penalty drew near unanimous opposition in public testimony over three meetings at City Hall from the homeless, formerly homeless, advocates and city residents. Ward 3 Alderman Manny Sanchez called the ordinance a “poor judgment” by the Council, opposing the measure as”loosely written, likely unenforceable and probably inconsistently enforced from officer to officer.”
The Council majority, adhering to Mayor Stewart’s demand for a quick vote, insist that the $99 fine for “aggressive” panhandling is not “criminalizing” the homeless at all. It just gives the Police Department another “tool” in their “tool box” to crack down on individuals soliciting money in ways that threaten others.
But Police Chief James Wardwell, addressing the issue at an April 26th Consolidated Committee meeting, was diplomatically neutral when Republican aldermen, including Ward 2’s Kristian Rosado, unsuccessfully went fishing for an official endorsement by the Chief. They didn’t get one. Wardwell indicated his officers use an array of existing laws already on the books, issuing warnings before they escalate situations into arrests. The criminal code includes a range of enforcement options for menacing behavior including disorderly conduct, threatening or even robbery that would appear to cover the definition of “aggression” that would result in a $99 fine and no criminal action. For true hustlers and bad actors that would amount to a slap on the wrist when the full weight of the law should come down on them. That makes the new ordinance at best redundant and at worst an official policy to target and criminalize the homeless.
For Wardwell and some members of the Council the larger issue for public safety is that NBPD may need more than one cop walking the beat downtown as the best antidote to “aggressive” behavior that , as defined in the ordinance, infringes on the rights of others in public places.
New Britain has now joined other communities which have inserted the word “aggressive” into ordinances to skirt constitutional issues. Courts have routinely thrown out anti-panhandling ordinances because they “impinge on protected speech and behavior.”
A recent study No_Safe_Place (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty) found the adoption of ordinances such as New Britain’s as counterproductive to both public safety and combating homelessness.
Criminalization measures do nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness and, instead, only worsen the problem. Misusing police power to arrest homeless people is only a temporary intervention, as most people are arrested and incarcerated for short periods of time. Ultimately, arrested homeless people return to their communities, still with nowhere to live and now laden with financial obligations, such as court fees, that they cannot pay. Moreover, criminal convictions – even for minor crimes – can create barriers to obtaining critical public benefits, employment, or housing, thus making homelessness more difficult to escape.
The new ordinance directly contradicts the city’s workplan on homelessness — Building Hope Together — posted on the city’s web site. First adopted in 2007 by former Mayor Timothy Stewart and promoted by Erin Stewart in her 2015 campaign for re-election, the plan with city government and agencies working together is committed to supportive housing, eviction prevention, employment and access to mental health and wellness services for the homeless population.
Passage of the ordinance has potential to deny New Britain federal funds to continue to implement the goals of the plan to reduce homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which provides $1.9 billion in federal funds to local Continuums of Care, now requires cities and their partners to “describe how they are reducing criminalization of homelessness.” In the very competitive process for these funds New Britain could become a loser because of an ordinance that targets homeless persons intentionally or not with fines they will not be able to pay.
Unfortunately the Stewart Administration’s push for the ordinance fits a pattern of taking resources away from those who are most in need in a cash strapped city with high pockets of poverty. That has been painfully evident over the last three years in the elimination of Community Development Block Grant funds for food pantries and other aspects of the city’s social safety net relied upon by low-income families and homeless persons. Instead, those federal funds have been put back into the municipal development bureaucracy or remain unused in addressing community needs.
The Mayor and the Council majority would do well to read the “Compassion Charter” they so enthusiastically embraced on April 27th “to treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.” Following that principle would require reversing an unnecessary, costly and punitive measure against the least among us.