Today I received an e-mail outlining Judge Robert Killian's plan and vision for Hartford, and quite honestly, it made sense to me with several points that I also have talked about and feel are important and critical to the future to Hartford. I am posting it here, please feel free to comment and let me know if you think it makes sense. This is not meant to be an endorsement of a specific candidate, although I will be meeting with Judge Killian next week to learn more. There are a couple other candidates worth looking at at this point, but it is nice to hear about a sensible vision for Hartford, and by vision, I don't mean creation of a "Yard Goat" or building a "Hartford Campaign Team" after the second implosion.
MY VIEW OF HARTFORD, AN ASSESSMENT OF ITS NEEDS AND IDEAS FOR TOMORROW Robert K. Killian, Jr., February, 2015
Every candidate is for better schools, more jobs and neighborhood empowerment. So am I. There are, however, extraordinary fiscal problems facing our City and unless we address them now, we may be closing in on a Detroit magnitude debacle. That would sacrifice all the progress we have made in recent years. Cities in Connecticut have only two income streams: the property tax and income infusions from the State or federal governments. Our property tax is woefully inadequate to support the needs of the second poorest City in the United States. State grants currently pay over half of our operating costs and unless they continue to do so, we will almost certainly fail.
In life, one person’s “vision” may be viewed as another’s “delusion.” I suppose the difference is a vision must be rooted in reality. I write this in an effort to explain what I see as Hartford’s reality.
• Since 1950, there has been an exodus of middle class and upper class Hartford residents to our suburbs. That mirrors a trend across the nation and is a result of the region’s growth and prosperity, coupled with the fact that Hartford was fully built by 1955. In 1950, Hartford had about 175 thousand residents and the region around 400 thousand. We were 45% of the region. By 2010, the region was upwards of a million people and Hartford 125 thousand, about 12% of the total. The City now serves as home to a wonderful mix of cultures, recent arrivals to Connecticut, U.S.A., elderly middle class people, the working poor , single parent households, and grandparents on fixed incomes struggling with their role as parents the second time around. In addition we succor people who the Late Hubert Humphrey called “the people who live in life’s shadows”: the homeless, the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled, and those who live on society’s darker edges.
• Poverty is an overwhelming problem. Our region is the 2nd wealthiest in the nation, but our City is the poorest in the nation save for Brownsville, Texas. Only 8% of our households have an income over $100,000. On the other end, 44% of our households earn less than $25,000 (only 17% do so State wide). Imagine the frustration of living in the shadow of such wealth but having to worry about properly feeding your family.
• Every urban area has a section which primarily serves its most challenged residents. Greater Hartford, the nation’s second richest region could not exist without such an area. Hartford serves a large percentage of the region’s most challenged residents. If our City was the physical size of Waterbury or Stamford, then West Hartford and parts of other abutting towns would be within our border. We would have the economic mix necessary for a healthy economy and we would have an economy of scale that would significantly reduce the overall cost of government. That’s the lesson we could-but didn’t- learn from Atlanta and Indianapolis, communities which consolidated governmental units and services. Remember, Hartford is about twelve percent of the region’s population and when our economically challenged residents are averaged in with the rest of the region’s wealth, we still come out as one of the wealthiest regions in the country!
Here’s some good news:
• Hartford is the business and financial center of a region of just under 1 million people. We are New England’s second most important financial center, and while our insurance and banking industry has contracted, we still maintain a prominent role in these businesses.
• We are the cultural center of the region and are enhancing our position as a significant academic center. St. Joseph’s Pharmacy school, the relocation of UCONN Business school and its West Hartford campus to downtown Hartford, coupled with the UCONN Law school, Capital Community College, University of Hartford and Trinity (as well as Goodwin College just across the river) insures a continued growth in this area and brings great vitality to our Downtown.
• We are blessed with historic sites and artistic treasures that would serve well a City five or six times larger.
• To its credit, City government has taken important first steps in stopping the frightening downward spiral in commercial real estate prices by encouraging, with State dollars and additional municipal support, the conversion of overbuilt office towers to desirable—and seemingly in demand—housing. Together with the State’s acquisition of properties on Columbus Boulevard, we can hope we will step back from the looming crisis when reassessment requires us to revalue commercial space that can now be bought for a square foot price 1/3 (or less) of the cost of new construction.
• Horton v. Scheff has resulted in a growing regionalization of our schools by acknowledging our minorities as a school asset, lending them to other districts to overcome their almost total whiteness. State support of Hartford education has allowed for significant improvement in our schools, public, charter and magnet, some of which are now considered among the best in the State.
• While there is no de jure regionalization, the State, with the support of our suburban neighbors, increasingly recognizes the need to financially shoulder part of our burden. They do this by tacitly recognizing a sort of de facto regionalization in which they support revenue shifting by giving generous support to the State’s struggling cities, particularly Hartford. We play a necessary and vital role in the region—and substantially relieve the rest of the region of shouldering the biblical command to “feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, cloth the naked, offer hospitality to the homeless, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned and bury the dead.” Currently, the State pays about half of our municipal costs.
• We have dramatically improved our stock of supported housing by tearing down pre World War II woefully inadequate structures and replacing them with attractive single and duplex homes which can serve the emerging middle class. Given our decline in population (30% in 60 Years) our 50 thousand plus housing units are adequate for our needs. While there are still units in desperate need of upgrade, large scale public housing (save for special needs groups) is becoming a thing of the past.
• Healthcare is an important component of job growth in America. Not only are our three great hospitals among our largest employers, but our schools and educational institutions are adapting great new programs to encourage education for the jobs of the future ranging from skilled technicians to doctors, nurses and other medical personnel.
Here are some major concerns:
• City government engages in “magical thinking” when confronted with large publicly funded redevelopment concepts for our City. Since the 1950’s there have been five such projects with the latest—the Baseball stadium- just rammed through. Think about this:
• We fought to change the fed’s plan for the intersection of I-91 and I-84. Originally intended to utilize the Dexter Coffin Bridge and I-291 as major conduits through the area, corporate interests and government combined to change the plan and create the I-84 chasm and the I-91 impediment to our riverfront.
• Constitution Plaza was touted, among other things, as displacing the eyesore of Front Street and removing its several thousand residents, largely to Franklin Avenue. While the Plaza did cement our role as New England’s second most important financial center, it also robbed us of the vitality of downtown residents living in an area that is reminiscent of North Boston and Providence’s Federal Hill. It was also our first chance to bridge the new I-84 chasm.
• The Civic Center has been great for downtown Hartford, but it would have been much greater if utilized to achieve the “two-fer” of an important coliseum and the bridge to the North. It replaced movie theaters, stores, the City Club, apartments and restaurants. It attempted an urban mall, food court and restaurant component which was a total failure after corporate subsidies ended.
• Riverfront Recapture was our greatest achievement in restoring character to our City. (Thanks, Joe Marfuggi!) The Convention Center our biggest blunder. We spent millions on Riverfront and then used State funds to acquire taxpaying properties and empty land that would be ripe for housing or commercial development and instead built a windowless structure, a fine hotel too small to serve the needs of the convention facility and an “entertainment district” that replicates one we already have. It also drove out one downtown steak house by subsidizing another in the entertainment district. Remember—the entire Adrien’s Landing area is tax exempt and, under the law, the State doesn’t even pay PILOT for it! This was our last chance to bridge I-84; put our hotels in easy access to the new Convention Center and since this would obviate the need for constructing a new entertainment district, would have seen empty retail space from the train station to Pratt Street to Columbus Boulevard fill up.
Now, we endorse a project to build a baseball stadium at a 26 year cost to the City that will, I fear, never be repaid by new tax revenue from what is hoped will be additional private investment. It encompasses new housing, retail and commercial space, all of which will compete with our current effort to stop the free fall of value in our existing, high vacancy buildings. It is government run amok without sound planning. It was developed without adequate public input and rammed through in disregard to public concern.
The Hartford Courant recently published an informative article by Dan Haar detailing the proposal. It showed expenditures exceeding $100 million for this project. The headline said that new financing was saving $22 million. That’s government- think. There is no way spending $100 million plus dollars saves $22 million. I’m sure Dan Haar didn’t write the headline.
• We have allowed our infrastructure to deteriorate. The interest alone on the millions we will invest in IQuilt, baseball and soccer stadiums could have made a major dent in our inadequate investment in our road, sidewalks, flood control, and other capital projects.
• There is way too much secrecy in our government. Ideas are not given adequate public airings and even when the public raises serious questions about proposals, they are denied basic information about their concerns, let alone receive answers.
• We have increasingly demonstrated Hartford is a poor steward of public money. Waste abounds and corruption too frequently emerges. There is an unwillingness to address structural governmental issues—pensions for new hires, true economies in government services and the abandonment of gimmicks in our budgeting process. Remember, we only have our parking meters and one more garage which we can sell to the State! We have to stop allowing political expediency to overwhelm needed governmental change.
• Our inability to involve our community in the governmental and electoral process has seen us deteriorate as a political force to the point where suburban neighbors with 2/3 of our population turnout many more voters on election days. When we negotiate with the State and federal governments, we do so with the voice of our political strength. Our registrars and too many incumbent political leaders have failed to try to stem the growing apathy of voters who feel ignored by City hall. Voter registration is a governmental issue and the meaningful involvement of minority voices is essential to good government.
• We seem to have forgotten that a local government must be committed to improving the lot of the 125,000 people who live here. Instead too many of our initiatives seem to be directed at trying to bring three to five thousand new, upscale residents to our City.
Here are some things the next Mayor must do:
1. Recognize that having created a strong mayor system; the mayor must be a strong leader/administrator. In our former system, professional city managers like Carleton Sharp and Eli Freedman presented budgets to the elected officials that, in effect, were a challenge to them to do the right thing. Now, the Mayor must present a budget that is more than a political document but a true blueprint for running our City. The Charter directs the mayor to select key administrators and then to supervise them. This is an unglamorous, hand’s on job that has yet to be effectively accomplished. Merit staffing, not political patronage must be a priority. A mayor must walk the middle ground between a bully and a wimp. Most importantly, the Mayor must perform as a leader of the entire City and not just those who delivered the election. The next mayor will undoubtedly be a Democrat, selected by a small number of voters in what will probably be a multi candidate primary. Look carefully how the candidates run and finance their campaign. It will tell us a lot about how they will govern.
2. Leadership means setting an example. Too many administrators, in addition to good pay, get overly generous benefits. There is no reason why numerous appointed officials, including the mayor (paid the same as a Superior Court judge) should expect a City car. Judges don’t get that. Hartford leaders haven’t earned the right to act imperiously. Expense accounts should be carefully scrutinized. Pensions for highly paid individuals should be reviewed to determine if a fixed contribution rather than a fixed benefit pension might not be a better route for our taxpayers.
3. Transparency should be considered the starting point of governmental accountability. Almost no matter should be brought to the council without full public discussion and debate and the mayor should welcome public input as ideas and programs are in the developmental stage. Freedom of Information Laws set the baseline, not the goal, for transparency. It is wrong for the public to learn the details of a proposal days—or hours—before it is passed by Council. The CIA, NSC and criminal investigations must work in private, but only rarely city government.
4. A Mayor should work closely with our legislators to educate the State and its wealthier towns to the plight of the poor who are so large a percentage of our residents. Even Governor Malloy, a friend of cities, may need some reminding about what some of his program cuts will mean here. For example, recently the State increased to a total of around $6,500.00 the amount someone with means can set aside for a funeral and still qualify for Medicaid benefits, but is decreasing from $1800 to $1000 the amount a person with no means can get for a pauper’s funeral. That’s not even enough to pay for direct cremation and discriminates against the poorest in our midst. Another example, the child only grant from DSS pays a non-parent guardian of a minor under $350 a month while a foster parent gets $750 per child per month. How about a decision to make the sales tax more regressive by enacting a meaningless reduction of the sales tax from 6.35% TO 5.95% while eliminating the exemption for clothes under $50? We’ve spent years talking appropriately about getting developmentally disabled and the mentally ill out of prisons and hospitals and into community treatment or group homes. But what is happening to these community programs? Nothing positive, I fear. Many of these challenged people live here. Hartford officials can’t create the group homes, but we can educate the state and regions as to the need.
5. The next mayor must engage in difficult negotiations with public employee unions to make pension adjustments for future hire’s to help avoid the Detroit debacle. As previously suggested this might include a two tier system in which fixed benefit plans are available for part of the total computation (perhaps up to $75,000) with any excess salary covered by a fixed contribution plan.
6. We have to decrease property taxes on all properties, residential and commercial. This will require a combination of fiscal restraint and the development, with state involvement, of new sources of revenue. Without property tax relief it will be difficult to attract—or even retain—new residents and jobs. Almost confiscatory taxes are one of the major factors in the free fall of property values, residential and commercial. Years ago, when commercial property was flourishing here, we created the tax differential, shifting burden from residences to commercial property. Now it’s time to develop better methods of dealing with urban tax revenue; time to lower everyone’s tax burden.
7. The State has been generous in supporting our City’s income needs. But we need more and we need to have it institutionalized so we don’t face an annual negotiation to secure help. There are a number of state ideas for decreasing municipal dependence on the property tax. Politically, they will be difficult to implement. But a change in PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) by establishing a payment scale that gives a bonus to poor, overburdened cities or towns, and caps the contribution at 50% rather than the current 30%. That could reduce our mill rate by 10 mills. Pilot should also be extended to include the convention center complex, land taken off the City tax rolls but legislatively exempted from PILOT. Finally, we should look to a service charge for tax exempt properties not covered by pilot that relates to the cost of City services (fire, police and roads) servicing those entities. They are valued neighbors, but should not expect our residents to pay their costs.
8. Finally, as we look at new initiatives we have to constantly question whether a proposal has a significant benefit for the entire City, for all its residents. Encouraging the conversion of over built commercial space to housing clearly does this. In anticipation of re assessment it is imperative that we take steps to stabilize the value of major properties in our downtown neighborhood. By bringing new bodies to the neighborhood, we add vitality to our financial district and that serves the entire City well. But to spend tens of millions of public dollars to build additional housing, some of which may cost government millions more to bring to reality, ignores a fundamental purpose of major governmental initiatives: the public dollars are seed monies which will inspire additional private investment. But if the cost of the seed exceeds the value of the harvest, better off leave the land fallow until the marketplace—in this case the renting of the under construction units—excites further investment. If the whole expenditure is geared toward the downtown initiatives, and ignores issues in other neighborhoods, it will offer a brighter glow in one place with a corresponding dimming of the lights elsewhere. Public investment must be evaluated to insure that it creates a tide that raises all the boats in the harbor—not just the yachts of a few.