Friday, April 30, 2010

State of the City

There have been a lot of things going on lately here in Waterbury, and they are all interwoven. The basic theme of recent events: the city government is proving to be a big disappointment to many residents, and the residents have lost patience and are making themselves heard. I'm going to address at least some of what's been going on in this post.

On Saturday April 17, more than 100 people came together for the Unity for Justice rally and Charter Revision Committee public hearing in the WOW neighborhood. Earlier in the day, the WOW neighborhood was visited by Congressman Chris Murphy, with Aldermen Joyce Petteway and Paul Pernerewski tagging along.

Most of the two dozen people at Murphy's public meeting were teenagers, members of the WOW/NRZ Youth Council. There was some discussion of opportunities for internships and the possibility of a bus trip to Washington, D.C. for the Youth Council.

Some of what Murphy said sounded like a standard speech about the stimulus money, but he also spoke on a few topics more specific to Waterbury. I was very pleased to hear him say that it is cheaper to rehabilitate existing housing than to build new. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, not only because I love historic architecture but because it is unbelievably wasteful to tear down structurally sound, well-constructed buildings and replace them with new buildings using modern cheap materials.

Murphy also stated that more money needs to be spent on education and positive activity programs for youths--and that doing so will reduce the amount of money we need to spend on juvenile corrections. (Someone should send that message to Waterbury's Public Works department, which has proposed cutting park & rec youth programs.)

I was a little surprised when Joyce Petteway spoke up to say that we can't look to government to solve our problems, although I have heard her say this before. I don't think she means for it to sound as callous as it does. As she said, the citizens have a responsibility to get involved and to be knowledgeable about what is going on, but what she didn't acknowledge is that there are limits to what citizens can do on their own. We can't replace the sidewalks without help from the city; we can't tear down dangerous abandoned buildings without help from the city; we can't enforce the law without help from the city.

Chris Murphy followed up with a better approach, tossing out a few factoids: 20% of twenty-year-olds vote; 80% of eighty-year-olds vote; and there is seven times as much federal money spent on eighty-year-olds as there is on 20-year-olds. Active participation is essential.

Active participation is what followed that afternoon. The Unity for Justice Rally started at 2:30 in the WOW Center with rousing speeches by Jimmie Griffin, Monroe Webster, Lisa Lessard, Dani McEvoy, James Monroe, Robert DeCosmo, Victor Diaz, Paul Vance, myself and probably one or two people I'm not remembering at the moment. After the speeches, we all gathered in the street outside and marched to Walsh School for the Charter Revision Committee's public hearing on Aldermen by District.

The weather wasn't too terrible, only a little bit of drizzle. As we marched along Walnut Street and turned the corner at Wood Street, we passed by two abandoned, decaying buildings that really symbolize the city's lack of interest in helping us improve this neighborhood--the school bus stop is right at these structures, and children have to stand under them every morning. This is why we want Aldermen by District, because we can't seem to get anyone in the current system to care enough about our neighborhood's problems.

Not everyone was able to walk to Walsh School, so some people met us there. The total crowd was a little over 100 people in attendance, with 30 people speaking at the public hearing. I was impressed by the long line of people signing up to speak. We were allowed ten minutes each, but most everyone kept the speeches short, so we were done in less than two hours.

The final result was immensely disappointing. Even though more than 100 people turned out in support of Aldermen by District and maybe only 5 people ever spoke out against it (not at Walsh School, where the speakers were unanimously in favor), all but two members the Charter Revision Commission ultimately voted against it. I've heard a rumor or two about why they voted it down, but whether or not they are true, I have to agree with Commissioner Bryan Baker, one of the two who voted for it, when he wrote on Twitter "The citizens of Waterbury got screwed tonight."

What a lot of people seem to misunderstand is that it wasn't up to the Charter Revision Commission to change our system of electing Aldermen. It was up to them to allow us the opportunity to vote on it in the fall. The citizens of Waterbury demanded the opportunity to vote in a democratic process to determine how we are to be governed, giving countless examples of how the current system doesn't work, and we were effectively told that our opinions and concerns are not valid. We were denied the right to vote.

At the same time that all of this was going on, the city and citizens were also responding to Mayor Jarjura's proposed increase of the mill rate. Here's a reminder for anyone paying attention during campaign season last year: Jarjura's 2009 campaign advertising boldly stated "Mayor Jarjura and his Democrat Team DID NOT RAISE YOUR TAXES IN 2010." Technically this is true. In 2009, Jarjura had not raised our taxes in 2010, since it hadn't happened yet. But now it is 2010 and he is raising our taxes (or does the increase not start until 2011?). Remember this when he starts his state-wide campaign promises.

One of the biggest complaints from Waterbury's taxpayers is that they are getting very few services in return for their taxes. The increase in the mill rate is not connected to any improvement in services. At the moment, it looks like the only way we'll keep the taxes from increasing this year is to get rid of some basic, necessary services. (Hey, look! We're getting screwed again!)

One of the early good guys in this story is City Clerk Michael Dalton, who readily gave up his $6,300 raise. The Republican-American contrasted this with City Auditor James Berthelson, who refused to give up his $2,550 raise but earns a little over $30,000 a year more than Dalton does. Mysteriously, Mayor Jarjura was apparently undecided about giving back any of his $119,000 a year salary (so much for leading by example).

What distresses me the most about the budget situation is that every department head seems to automatically assume that a budget cut will require laying off workers, closing fire stations, prohibiting swimming at Lakeville, shutting down youth programs, and getting rid of the anti-blight team. Whatever happened to economizing? Whatever happened to finding more cost-efficient ways of getting the same things done?

This is a slightly trivial analogy, but if I want a cup of coffee every morning, I can spent $2 a day buying it from a cafe, or I can spend a few pennies a day making it at home. Considering how large the city's budget is, I'm sure there are plenty of similar choices that can be made. The most obvious one is the city's budget for electricity. The Education Department has a budget of $4 million for their electricity needs. They could save 10-20% if the city switched to Positive Energy as their supplier. Waterbury's taxpayers could potentially save close to $1 million just by changing their utilities contracts. Why hasn't this been done? I've been told that Mayor Jarjura was approached by Positive Energy and refused the opportunity to save this money. I can only assume that there are many other cost reductions that are also being ignored.

It's easy to see why so many people have left Waterbury. For those of us who have chosen to stay here and do what we can to make things better, it can be very frustrating to see just how much work we have in front of us. But to everyone who lives in Waterbury and wants to see it get better, I say keep trying, keep working together, and never let them get you down!

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