With the municipal elections four months away and the Democrat primary almost a certainty, things will be heating up once again in Waterbury. It will be an interesting effort, since there will be a few touchy issues all of us will have to face. Both the incumbents and aspiring candidates for municipal positions should be mindful of the saying, “Make sure your brain is engaged before you put your mouth in motion”.
But words are cheap and memories short.
The number one issue ought to be the proposal to sell the city water. Do not get misled by the “Unfunded Pension Liability” label. While the title is correct, it is here to make many citizens feel that the problem is way beyond their scope. It aims at the apathy prevailing from the experience that the “city administration will do what it wants, no matter what we say”. This is not true any more! The school bonding referendum and the more recent plan to collect car taxes in a single payment have shown that public opinion and anger count.
At the June 16th “Workshop” at UConn the administration masked its obvious preference for the formation of the Municipal Water Authority outlined last March 4th, by bringing up two “citizen” inspired alternatives. One is a 5 mil special tax over 5 years, intended to bring $75 million into the Pension Fund coffers. The other would change the status of our current water system, so that a portion of its profits could be diverted into the Pension Fund.
The original proposal would supposedly bring in $100 million, at the cost of us losing all control of the 7,000 acres of land and reservoirs. It would be a dream come true for both local and outside real estate speculators and investors. If you have marveled at the explosion of real estate and energy values, wait until you see water skyrocket! If I had means to invest, guess where I would put my money?
$100 million may look like an awful lot to us “Village Idiots”, but it is small change to our city with its financial obligations. It will hardly make a difference, except for profits for the carpetbaggers and their lawyers. As a senior citizen on fixed (and shrinking) income and taxpayer, I would rather face the special tax than helplessly watch the water and sewer charges escalate. The mil rate will go up anyway, delayed only temporarily. Think about it. We’ve seen “quick fixes” before.
As taxpayers, we can only blame ourselves for having allowed the past administrations to deplete the pension fund to where it is – $450 million in the red. As correctly pointed out by one of the speakers at the forum concerning the water authority proposal at UConn last month, the deficit is actually far greater in reality. The amount does not cover other benefits, which must be paid out. Our fault lies in the fact that, as long as the administrations involved did not raise our taxes, we were willing to look the other way when they were stripping the fund. The sale of city water is such a trap. Keep that in mind! I hope that other citizens will articulate this issue.
Those of us at the proverbial grass roots level should not judge the quality of candidates by the contents of their “war chests” or their eloquence. I consider the dollar amount in contributions by business and involved individuals to be directly proportional to the obligations assumed by a candidate in the quest to be elected. This certainly opens an avenue to outside influence. To many contributors, giving money is like paying insurance. Many hedge it by spreading their money among opposing candidates, on the assumption that one of them will win and provide some kind of return on the investment. After all, contributors to former mayor Giordano’s campaign are still personae gratae at City Hall.
The cost of getting elected locally pales when viewed in the context of large cities. Never mind the cost of presidential campaigns. A news release in the daily paper of May 14th 2005 stated that New York’s Michael Bloomberg spent $9.9 million of “his own” money to-date on his re-election campaign. His election campaign in 2001 cost $74 million. Now that’s real money! Instead of strings there must be heavy chains attached to it.
Pure political ambition and willingness to truly represent ordinary taxpayers are so rare that the few holdouts are liable to be viewed with suspicion by voters. Same applies to their potential peers. I recall reading an article by a newly elected congressman with bright ideas for reforming some Washington practices. He was, upon arrival, taken aside by some already established peers and lectured on “you scratch our backs and we’ll scratch yours, if you want to accomplish anything”. The guy must have been honest, because he lasted only one term. I think that the same model applies to any level of administration. In the private sector it is known as “team playing”.
In Waterbury, a person running for office has very limited options. It is easy to say that, if elected one will perform wonders. Some of the problems will not change, however. Ultimately, it will be the candidates’ courage to make unpopular decisions where long range benefits for taxpayers are concerned. As taxpayers and voters we must view the potential of a candidate against that reality.
The side benefit of any election campaign, however, is the fact that a lot of carefully hidden truth will show up among the organic fertilizer being flung by the candidates at each other. Now, therefore, will be the time for us “Village Idiots” to watch things very carefully and read the lips.
One fact remains – no matter who wins, we must prepare to pay more in taxes, if we expect to retain current city services. While the city, under any management, will face the rising costs for utilities etc., the taxpayers at large will foot these, plus price increases by food, gasoline and other providers. It is a double whammy. Both the city administration, the school system and the unions, therefore, will have to tighten their belts proportionately.
The current administration has concentrated on the buildup of its infrastructure and ensuring that, in the future, the mayor will exercise an unprecedented control through the revised Charter. Here again, the naive taxpayers and voters have approved changes which will bite our rear ends in the future.
Meanwhile, yet another force has been introduced in the form of the Waterbury Development Corporation (WDC). Residents must understand that WDC is a reincarnation of the Naugatuck Valley Development Corporation (NVDC) which, in turn, was reincarnated from the Greater Waterbury Industrial Development Corp. Latter had been formed by private local financial interests around 1950. The descendants of the original founders are still very much in power. Indeed, the last four years have seen the solidification of that power as an integral component of the administration.
With the past and present administrations dodging the creation of a practical economical development plan, we have nothing that would enable the city to react quickly to any opportunities. The last several city administrations have been very casual about bringing Waterbury out of the doldrums. Instead, they have allowed this to become a “welcoming” city, with a shrinking tax base, ready to spend taxpayers’ money with little accountability.
The “Downtown Revitalization Plan” was conceived and financed by former governor John Rowland. The Wolcott Street revival has been a private sector effort. Remediation projects, like Freight Street, the Spoon Factory and Mattatuck Manufacturing site have been milked by NVDC and its cohorts to death. The “new” Plan of Conservation and Development has been largely regurgitated from previously paid effort by same consultants; its implementation is based on assumption that the state and / or federal government will somehow provide the funds, or more blood could be squeezed out from the taxpayers.
June 2005 issue of the OBSERVER was right in picking Carl Rosa of “Main Street Waterbury” for its Person of the Year. He has been infusing the sorely needed sense of business and resident cooperation in salvaging the butchered downtown area. I wish, however, that the administration had not shied from such an initiative on overall city level.
Incidentally, at the previously mentioned June 16th “Workshop”, mention had been made of Waterbury having a surplus of water. During the public comments, Mr. Frank Gomes suggested that the city should attract a business that would bottle water. This suggestion must have been too logical and simple for press and the mighty to pick up. Do you remember the legend about the famous soft drink company, which had been selling its product in the form of syrup which had to be added to soda, until someone suggested, “bottle it” ? Someone in that management must have listened and the rest is history…..