Things are heating up! The Mayor convened a public meeting last night at Walsh School to share with area residents the new anti-blight and litter initiative he has launched. It was the best-attended event in the WOW neighborhood in a long time. The Walsh gym was packed. There were, of course, city officials and several community activists present, but they were far outnumbered by neighborhood residents. There was a buzz of excitement and a renewal of hope.
The format was largely one in which the different city departments involved in the new anti-blight initiative explained what they are doing. Although one audience member later accused them of merely patting themselves on the back, they really were reporting to the public and much of what they had to say was very warmly received.
As the Mayor pointed out, he has been in office for less than two months. I think there has been more progress in fighting blight in that time than there has been in years. Two of the most important steps are the formation of the Waterbury Blight Enforcement & Control Division and the formation of the Blight Task Force. Instead of farming out blight control to WDC, which has very limited enforcement ability, a division of the police department is now in charge of enforcement. Instead of every city department working on their own, their efforts are unified by the task force.
There seemed to be two basic areas of concern for residents and landlords.
The first concern is that the city is not actually going to follow through on its new promise to help the neighborhood. I think everyone who has lived in the WOW neighborhood for more than 15 years can quickly point back to broken promises and empty promises of the Giordano and Jarjura administrations. All I can say in response to that concern is that the past is the past. Learn from the past, hold the city accountable for its promises, but don't slow things down by dwelling on past wrongs.
The other area of concern is that property owners will be treated unfairly. The city is absolutely getting tough on blight. Property owners are going to be held fully accountable for the condition of their properties. The possibility of jail time for property owners who refuse to comply with anti-blight regulations is being looked into. The city, however, does recognize that not all situations are the same. I know they are very sympathetic towards landlords who are stuck with destructive tenants and are working on finding solutions.
The city is very willing to help anyone who needs help. One audience member last night talked about the difficulty she is having with her rental property. She can no longer afford to maintain it, can't sell it, and was unable to get any assistance from HUD. As soon as she finished speaking, someone from the Health Department sat down with her, got her contact information, and started the process of finding a solution. Mayoral Aide Geraldo Reyes sat down with her next to talk about how he can help.
There was one new initiative announced that received a vigorous round of applause. As most everyone in Waterbury has noticed, the Republican-American has started posting the names and addresses of property owners cited for blight violations by the Health Department. The majority of the property owners live outside Waterbury. This is a huge frustration for those of us who live in the WOW neighborhood. We get blamed for the blighted conditions here, but many of the problems are caused by absentee landlords. What makes it particularly frustrating is that we in the neighborhood have no way of reaching those out-of-town property owners, no way to talk to them about doing a better job of maintaining their property, no way to tell them to clean up, but we are still blamed by the rest of the city for their blight no matter how clean our own properties might be (and, as Bonnie Orintas noted, the WOW neighborhood has some of the city's most beautiful and best-maintained properties).
At last night's meeting, Roseann Wright, Director of the Health Department, announced that they are now sending press releases about out-of-town owners of blighted properties to their local newspapers. This was loudly applauded. Here is a sample press release that was distributed last night:
Paul Guidone presented a Facility Improvement Plan for Walsh School. The plan includes a long list of short-term renovations to be completed before the new school year starts in the fall, including recaulking windows and building exterior joints, reconstructing the front entrance sidewalk, installing security cameras and a new fence, and cutting back overgrown trees and shrubs. The long-term plan is short, but is mainly major renovations and expansions. The Walsh School Facility Improvement Plan is a perfect example of where we are: everything on the list should have been done already, which is frustrating; but I am so pleased that is going to happen now. Waterbury is finally moving in the right direction.
Last, but not least, a delicious pasta dinner was served at the end of the meeting by the PAL organization.