The toppling of Mike Jarjura by Karen Mulcahy in the Democrat primary has put the Waterbury political setup on its head. Former Governor John Rowland called Waterbury politics a “contact sport” and the KO came out of the blue in this bout.
Pending next month’s municipal election the voters should not only listen to the rhetoric, but also look carefully at the facts in historical context. Our city is on the edge of a precipice, along with many cities and towns across the nation. In Waterbury, successive administrations have pursued policies manipulated by out – of -town players. This has created a tradition of what I call “Welfarism”, based on the premise that Hartford shall provide when an administration finds itself in need and forgive when it screws up. Never mind the cost of this largesse which, unfortunately, has to be borne by the taxpayers.
Traditionally both the Democrat and Republican parties joined hands behind the scenes, feeling comfortable with this arrangement. Shortly before declaring his original candidacy for Mayor, Mike Jarjura was quoted in the Rep-Am of May 13, 2001, as having stated, “There are a small group of operatives from both parties who are probably some of the most vile and disruptive people….”
What makes the last two mayoral terms different is that every effort was made to solidify the powers of the mayor through Charter revisions. Those of us attending the Charter revision discussions and concerned about the growth of mayoral powers, were told by consulting Attorney Mednick that the revisions were intended for a “Good Mayor” and that it was up to us voters to elect one. So, here we are!
Before going to the booth the voter should consider the merits of each candidate against the common denominator, which is hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, lack of economic development, aging infrastructure, growing education costs, union contracts and rapidly rising cost of energy and materials. This is what any mayor elect will have to deal with, given minimal funds in the shrinking national economy.
There are no easy solutions for our problems and I will not try to come up with any. There is no magic wand any politician can wield. Whoever wins the upcoming election better be accountable in the future for any unrealistic promises, because there will be a lot of very angry citizens. Also, high on the mayoral priority list should be the excision of many parasitic traditions.
But let me go back through history. The origin of many problems facing Waterbury trace back to former mayor Giordano and his predecessors. Current administration has failed to cut through many of those spider webs, being either unable or unwilling. I also blame former governor John Rowland for having allowed his “Center of the Universe” to slip so deep into red ink. The only thing I would blame us taxpayers for is that we had elected and, even worse, re-elected all those people.
The deficit in the city pension fund could not have grown to $450 million unnoticed in Hartford. In a February 7th 2001 letter to the Rep-Am editor, David Gilmore states, “We were mandated financial oversight to ensure fiscal soundness in terms of balancing revenue with equal appropriations by a three-member, state appointed Budget Advisory Council”. Certainly, governor Rowland and our legislators were aware what had been happening on BAC’s watch and did nothing while mayor Giordano and his cohorts sent the city on a downward spiral. They were witnesses to a crime!
The primary push of the Jarjura administration and State Oversight Board has been to establish the bureaucratic control of a system gone wild. No question, this was needed. Unfortunately, an assumption had been made that Mike Jarjura had a potential for at least two more terms and that the state and federal economies would remain stable, to ensure a steady flow of grants etc. These premises have now been wiped out. Bureaucracy alone could not carry our city.
Administrative Planning. The reliance of the Oversight Board and the administration on consultants and studies has demonstrated their lack of practical sense. Use of outside advisers has one great advantage for any administration in offering immunity from lasting responsibility. In a situation like the one we are going to face, all involved will fade away after a lot of finger pointing. Left behind will be a bunch of us taxpayers wondering what hit them.
Fiscal Recovery. The touted fiscal “recovery” of our city has been primarily based on two revaluations and squeezing the taxpayers for overdue taxes and more conscientious payment of the current ones. Even if we counted on revenues from residential growth and had real prospects for new industry, it would take years for them to make a mark on our deficit.
Economic Planning. The administration has continued the tradition of their predecessors and relied on housing and retail business growth, neither of which require great administrative effort. These two essentially take care of themselves, if one is willing to ignore the strain on city’s infrastructure. Low land costs have been feeding the housing boom, while the rebirth of Wolcott Street retail sector was a self-starter. In latter case, the administration has not even moved a finger to urge the State to route Rt. 69 through Manor Avenue, to expose the adjoining sector of Wolcott Street to business growth.
We have lacked a plan for industrial development. As an example, look at the South End area adjoining and shared with Naugatuck. That ruckus goes back to 1999, when mayor Giordano talked about an 800 – worker employer moving in etc. NVDC got a planning grant for $310,000. Nothing happened because, in my opinion, Naugatuck was shabbily and arrogantly treated (refer to meeting of 1/30/2001 at the Chamber of Commerce). The roots of the recent TJX fiasco probably go back to that time.
Proponents of the $2.5 million Information Technology Zone (ITZ) often mentioned abundant numbers of “trained workers” in Waterbury. Where are they? We would not even have enough trained construction workers for the upcoming school building project! Remember mayor Giordano’s opposition to training? The city may claim an industrial training facility, but that was conceived and put into effect primarily by local industries and a volunteer group called Waterbury Visions, going back to 1995. What a memory lapse!
Downtown Revitalization: In 1993 the RU/DAT (Report of the Regional / Urban Design Assistance Team of the American Institute of Architects) had outlined a layout with the Palace Theater not being the only attraction. It proposed a mix of cultural / commercial environment and a “multi-purpose” structure which could be used for conventions, exhibitions etc. This mix would have provided daytime cultural and commercial activities, complemented by the mostly evening ones at Palace Theater. The 1998 plan, as originally presented, actually followed the RU/DAT recommendations. Governor Rowland nixed it, effectively killing the revitalization. Just drive or walk along East Main to see the results.
Brownfields: Remediating a brownfield is an extremely costly and red-tape bound proposition. It calls for private investors with deep pockets and keen interest. Our successive city administrations have demonstrated considerable incompetence in this area by not having a realistic economic development plan. They have milked the state and federal agencies for study funds etc., contributing primarily to NVDC’s salaries and retainer fees for lawyers. Just look at the Mattatuck Mfg. site. It should have been cleaned up two years ago. Other projects also received state grants for development planning, e.g. Freight Street / Jackson Street ($2.5 million in 1999 ), “Rogers Spoon Factory” ($1 million in 1999) etc. Have you heard much about what is going on there? In 2004 the city received $450,000 in grants for brownfields evaluation! Anything happening?
The Housing Bubble. Nothing effective has been done to change the tack of relying on land use. Most people have forgotten the “Condo -Mania” during the Santopietro administration. Real estate and construction are what both the current administration and WDC (Waterbury Development Corporation, the reincarnated NVDC) are comfortable with; both benefit from fees and grants. There are serious snags on the horizon, however. It is no secret that land use bubble is just about to burst, with dire consequences to housing market and banks holding the exorbitant mortgages.
The consequences of the housing bubble bursting will deal the taxpayers another punch. The “double” revaluation took place during the real estate cost escalation. If and when the bottom will drop out of the housing market, home owners will find themselves stuck with taxes on properties worth much less and a weak real estate market to boot. I’m sure the city will not revalue downwards and even increase the tax.
State Oversight Board. The presence and powers of the Board have enabled the administration to play the “Good Cop / Bad Cop” game. It allows the Mayor to play the nice guy siding with the residents, but having to submit to Board’s frequently less popular decisions. This was particularly true in the case of the Palace Theater and will probably be repeated in the eventual solution concerning Waterbury’s water ownership. Our legislators will have a cause to regret their midnight rush to nix our rights to referendum. Don’t let them get away with it!
Taking everything into account, however, I would guess that the Board will probably stay around for a few more years, which will be a blessing and a curse.
Water. This is the one commodity we have that will escalate in value no matter what. In the past I approached one of our representatives regarding a possible increase in the holding capacity of our reservoirs, to shield us from cyclic droughts. Not through his fault, this got nowhere. Just look at the current crisis in Montville, where DEP drained a pond during a draught season creating shortage of city water; people with wells have to shell out for deep drilling. It is a shame that all these years we have allowed so much surplus water to flow into the Sound. Any utilization of water should have been part of our economic development planning. Like anything else, it would take several years for it to make an impact on our tax base. We must defend our ownership, however, and put our water to use.
Your wisely considered vote will count a lot!