Monday, September 07, 2009

River Baldwin Forum

I love political debates (and wish we would have one during this election season!). Last Friday's Democratic Forum at the River Baldwin center had a brief moment when Vance and Jarjura slid into a debate, but the moderator quickly got them back on format. While the two hours were relatively calm, it certainly was informative.

I was astonished by some of the things Jarjura said, especially considering that the first round of Q&A was prepared in advance. Most notably (if that's the right word for it), he proposed several scenarios in which he will raise taxes and one scenario in which he will be cutting funding to some city programs.

Most infuriatingly, at one point Jarjura claimed, in effect, that things are great in all of Waterbury's neighborhoods. I was so outraged by his claims that I almost started shouting at him. The question to which he was responding (I wrote notes, but not verbatim) asked what his plan was for improving the city's suffering neighborhoods. Jarjura answered with a sort of anecdote about how terrible things were when he first became mayor eight years ago, that back then city residents were so fed up and frustrated that they were ready to leave Waterbury, but now (after 8 years of Jarjura as Mayor), everything is fine, we have plenty of grant writers, there is money available for homeowners to upgrade their houses, and we have no extra money to fix up neighborhoods.

Now, granted, I'm writing this 48 hours later, working from notes I typed quickly into my phone, so these are not direct quotes, just the gist of what he said. Tearing it apart one piece at a time:

~Most everyone in my neighborhood is frustrated and fed up and ready to leave Waterbury; in the past 8 years, they have seen their property taxes more than double without seeing any improvements to city services, and in most cases they don't feel like they have seen any city services worth mentioning;

~If we have "plenty" of grant writers, why don't we have any extra money to fix up neighborhoods? if we can spend $2 million buying Drubner's land, why can't we spend $2 million fixing up blighted neighborhoods? If we have neighborhoods that NEED fixing up, then how is it possible that everything is fine?

It was clear from what Jarjura said that he has never been to my neighborhood, or any other neighborhood that has been suffering for years. He is completely oblivious.

Other memorable highlights from the forum: in response to the lack of diversity in city hiring (for example, every member of the Mayor's office staff are white, in a city where 25% of the population is Hispanic), Jarjura said "the problem is primaries", that Cicero Booker has failed to recommend minorities for assorted positions, and that the Board of Aldermen, which according to Jarjura has nothing to do all year except approve his budget, hasn't done anything and "hopefully the next Board of Aldermen will do their jobs." I wondered what the incumbents on his ticket thought of that. I spoke to Alderman Nogueira after the forum--he was furious.

After a mid-forum break, members of the public had the opportunity to have their questions asked. One woman from the South End wanted to know what each candidate was going to do about the poor conditions of some of the school buildings and school supplies. Jarjura was flummoxed, and insisted that everything was fine with schools, implying that the woman didn't know what she was talking about.

The forum started out with a general question about problems Waterbury faces. Jarjura responded by citing the national financial crisis and, for the next question concerning future policy decisions, warned that he will have to stop funding some programs in order to avoid raising taxes. Later on, he described a plan to increase the sales tax for anything sold in Waterbury so that the city will gain extra revenue. This is apparently a plan concocted by the mayors of several cities, but it seems fundamentally flawed. It increases taxes for the poorest city residents who are unable to go to a town with lower taxes to do their shopping.

The overall message from Jarjura was "everything is fine, there's no need to make any changes or improvements," except when he was blaming problems on anyone other than himself (in addition to the above examples, he also blamed the school problems on single-parent families, teen pregnancy and abusive households).

In contrast, Vance proposed numerous ways to improve city services, lower taxes and improve quality of life in Waterbury. His plans include ways to make the city friendlier to businesses, establishing the Mayor's office as a hub for economic development, reducing the city's expenditures for legal fees by putting legal services out to bid, hiring a grant writer (which was in the city budget for last year, but instead a new aide was hired for the Mayor's office), establishing monthly community meetings for the Mayor's office and making the Board of Aldermen more accessible to the public by holding some meetings in community centers, give neighborhood associations grant funds to help improve the neighborhoods, create tax incentives to help fight foreclosures, and reduce pollution (whereas Jarjura spoke about bringing in more industry to the heavily-polluted South End).

By the end of the 2-hour forum, Vance had earned several new supporters.

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