To those of us gathered here in our Council Chambers this evening: welcome to City Hall and thank you for joining us. I also want to say hello to those watching on Nutmeg TV, or streaming live on our website, newbritainct.gov.
Distinguished members of the Common Council, elected and appointed officials, department heads, city employees and, most importantly, my fellow New Britain residents – I come before you tonight to deliver my 6th State of the City address.
Oftentimes, these speeches are used simply to recite a laundry list of accomplishments from the previous year and provide assurance that the state of the city is strong when, in reality, things may not be that rosy. To be sure, we do have much to be proud of and I will spend the majority of my time highlighting many projects – some complete, some ongoing, some that have taken years to put together – that are making this City better and stronger. But I also intend to be honest with you about what it takes to run a City like New Britain, what it takes to deliver the services our residents need and demand, and quite frankly what it costs.
Ladies and gentlemen, the state of our City is fragile. Over the past six years, we have pulled ourselves back from the brink of bankruptcy, but by no means has the danger passed. Last year, we executed a large restructuring of our financial obligations and have continued to exercise conservative budgeting practices and strong fiscal controls to provide stability. Unfortunately, because of some, the timing of the restructuring was delayed and the ability to create an additional $5 million of budget flex was squandered, making our job all the more difficult with this year’s budget.
At the same time, the headwinds created by the perpetual budget crisis facing the state have resulted in a steady decline of available aid and grants. The Governor’s proposed budget slightly decreases our municipal aid from last year, and in addition, several proposals will create new and large obligations, such as making us responsible for a percentage of teachers’ pension costs plus an additional $1.6 million in Municipal Employee Retirement System contributions.
When our Grand List was finalized in January, it showed an increase of 1.17%, an approximate increase of $1.5 million in new tax revenue. Once adjustments are made after appeals, I expect that number to more realistically be around $800,000. Between reductions in state funding, the imposition of new expenditures from the state, and the year-over-year contractual increases in labor and service costs, I don’t believe the increase in the Grand List alone will be sufficient to absorb these new financial realities. So we must continue to be creative in finding new revenues, while at the same time controlling expenditures.
Our partnership with Tax Management Associates has helped our Assessor’s Office audit more than 30 delinquent personal property tax accounts, adding more than $70,000 in potential new tax revenue. Once all delinquent accounts are audited, we have the chance to add more than $823,000 in new annual revenues. Furthermore, we have contracted with TaxServ to collect over a thousand delinquent property and motor vehicle tax accounts. I promise you that we are looking under every stone to find additional revenues.
From an expenditure standpoint, after six years of budgeting we truly have cut down to the bone. That is not to say that I won’t be going line-by-line with every department head as I assemble my budget…I am…but it does mean that there are no easy answers. We are a city that is only 13.3 square miles, 98% of which is developed, and 49% of which is non-taxable. Just so we’re clear: to fund a $240 million annual budget, we are only able to raise revenue from 6.5 square miles of businesses and residents. At the same time, we have the unique pressures of being an urban center surrounded by suburban and rural communities.
When someone needs a hospital, they come here. When someone needs state services, they come here. When someone needs treatment for addiction or services for the indigent or homeless, they come here. That’s on top of the regular services our residents deserve, like schools, roads, fire, police, water, sewer, trash, and the list goes on. It’s the price we pay for being a City, and it requires proactive, strong and consistent management day-over-day to keep it in balance.
At a time when our residents are facing a host of new state taxes and tolls on the highways, I am doing everything in my power to compose a budget that will not ask any more from our residents. But let’s be real, and I’m speaking directly to the ever-growing list of people looking for additional funding, the fact is that – right now – we simply don’t have enough new revenue to offset increases in existing expenditures.
I mentioned that it takes strong management to keep New Britain moving forward each day. As CEO of the City, I am blessed to have a team of department heads who help me provide it, and I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge them. I could stand here for hours talking about each department’s individual successes in the past year, truly it is too long a list. To each of you, and to the personnel of the departments you lead, on behalf of our residents, thank you.
At this time last year I was in the process of completing the search for a new Fire Chief. Tonight, I can confidently stand here and say that our new Chief, Raul Ortiz, is the right and best man for the job. Over the course of the past year, Chief Ortiz and our Fire Department have literally been tested by fire, and today the Department is running better than it has for a long time. Recently, the Department welcomed 8 new recruits and commissioned 3 new engines. We are also in the process of engaging a design team to help us upgrade and refurbish our fire houses to 21st century standards that New Britain can be proud of. Thank you, Chief, and thank you to all of New Britain’s Bravest.
At the Police Department, leadership has also changed. In January we said goodbye to our beloved Chief Jim Wardwell and welcomed an interim, home-grown, leadership team of Acting Chief Christopher Chute and Acting Deputy Chief Jeanette Portalatin. Both of them walked the beat in our North Oak neighborhood early in their careers, have devoted their adult lives to making New Britain a safer community, and have worked hard and with honor to accomplish their professional goals. I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that, having earned the title of Acting Deputy Chief, Jeanette Portalatin has shattered another glass ceiling, becoming the highest-ranking woman in the Department’s 148-year history.
Next week I’ll be leading interviews for a permanent Chief of Police, and I am excited to announce that decision at our next Common Council meeting. The Police Department now has 154 sworn officers and we are continuing to seek out qualified candidates to increase the force. If you or someone you know is interested in joining the best Police Department in Connecticut, please apply via www.policeapp.com. Thank you to our Chiefs and to all our men and women in blue.
Earlier I referenced the increase in our Grand List. That represents five straight years of positive economic growth after years of stagnation and decline. Existing businesses and manufacturers are investing in their operations, while new businesses are moving in. Last year, we welcomed over two dozen new businesses – including our second brewery – and saw the addition of 150 new jobs to the community. Unemployment in New Britain for 2018 was down to 4.3%, the lowest it’s been in 7 years.
More than $4 million worth of expansions have been completed by existing firms like Admill Machine, K&R Grinding, EZ Welding and John Boyle & Company. Several businesses celebrated major milestones last year, including the 175th anniversary of Stanley Black & Decker, the 100th anniversary of Spring Brook Ice & Fuel, and the 30th anniversary of Admill. I cannot stress enough the importance of these legacy businesses to our community. Not only do they drive Grand List growth, they are also integral in supporting community organizations and initiatives, and are true corporate partners in making this City a better place. We value them and we need to keep them.
Our downtown continues to grow. In December, CMHA moved 100 employees into the Plaza Building (formerly ACMAT). 222 Main Street has been sold and its original façade has been revealed for the first time since the 1960s. The former Burritt Bank building has also been sold to a new owner. We’ve had new businesses open on West Main Street and we anticipate the arrival of a new deli and bakery at 2 Main Street. Charter Oak College will soon be calling downtown home to its 75 employees at CCSU/ITBD, where renovations are currently underway.
In July, we formally announced one of the most exciting and game-changing developments ever to happen in New Britain: the Energy and Innovation Park at the old Stanley Works site. This billion-dollar project has been years in the making and will transform the City, bringing 3000 highly-skilled jobs and a projected $45 million in new tax revenue over the years. Phase 1 is currently underway with the creation of the world’s largest indoor fuel-cell installation, expected to be complete later this year.
On Columbus Boulevard, the foundation has been poured and steel beams are going up for the first phase of the $58 million, 148-unit Columbus Commons mixed use development on the site of the old police station – directly across from the CTFastrak terminal. This project is the catalyst for a new wave of activity and interest in our downtown area.
We are truly doing our best to market New Britain to the state. It may come as a surprise, but much of the heavy-lifting in bringing this development to town is the result of a committed team that comprise our TOD and marketing workgroups. Bill Carroll and our economic development team (of two people) are running in five different directions everyday growing and managing our relationships with businesses, always pushing forward and doing their best to land new development and increase tax revenues. Two years after the official launch of our new “Experience the New” marketing campaign, we are continuing our outreach to visitors. I’d like to thank Billy, Dave Huck, Kenny Malinowski, Mark Moriarty, Kim Villanti and Paul Amarone, who do so much with few resources. These two plans are absolutely critical to the long-term success of our City.
On the Public Works front, all you have to do is take a drive through downtown to see the progress – and the accomplishments – as our Complete Streets Master Plan truly comes together. The safety improvements on Columbus Boulevard, including the addition of a new roundabout and reconfigured bus stops, have been completed. Work has now shifted to phase 5, with the rehabilitation and redesign of the Main Street Bridge – soon to be known as the Beehive Bridge. Construction is on-schedule to be completed this summer. I am happy to also report that phases 6 & 7 are fully funded giving the department another 2 years of projects to complete.
In 2018, we spent a total of $1.1 million to pave several miles of 11 streets through our annual paving program. Additionally, our Public Works team crack-sealed more than 10 miles of roadway across all parts of the community. This strategic maintenance helps to prolong the life of our road infrastructure.
We are also reducing the size of our carbon footprint. Our fleet has been reduced by 10 percent and much has been replaced with newer, more efficient vehicles. Since 2014, fuel consumption by the City’s fleet has decreased by 25%, saving thousands in fuel costs. These efforts are part of our ongoing SMART City Initiative, aimed at creating energy savings and reducing our impact on the environment. If you haven’t yet read the plan, I’d encourage you to do so.
On May 23rd, we broke ground at Smalley Elementary School for its $53 million city-financed renovation that will modernize this North Oak area school, add more classroom space and expand parking. The project is on track to finish in time for the first day of school this fall.
City Hall continues to be aggressive in seeking out grant opportunities to make investments of our own. In particular, the Public Works department and Department of Community Development have leveraged millions of dollars from state and federal programs for redevelopment of our streets and brownfield sites. As I said before, many of these grants are coming to an end or being significantly scaled-back, so the opportunities are fleeting and we are making the most of them.
We are also ahead of the pack among municipalities in Connecticut in developing and executing a strategy to take advantage of the new federal Opportunity Zone legislation. I created an Opportunity Zone workgroup and, together, we have created a new website (newbritainopportunityzone.com) and produced an Opportunity Zone toolkit for developers looking to invest in these projects. We are actively engaging investors to look at the three areas in town that have been designated. There is a high level of competition among cities for these projects and we are putting ourselves in a leading position.
We are going after blight and holding absentee landlords accountable…more than 1500 complaints were inspected and pursued in 2018. Last April, the Quonset Hut on Slater Road – long an eyesore, was torn down and is ripe for development. Other blighted properties have been demolished, helping to jump start much needed change. These efforts will continue.
New Britain is a community with tremendous compassion. In November, with the Assistance of the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office and health service providers, we launched the HOPE Initiative as a way to get individuals struggling with heroin and opioid addiction connected to the services that they need for recovery. So far we’ve assisted 24 individuals, four of whom took it upon themselves to approach the police for help and were not arrested.
In January, we created the New Britain Opioid Task Force to take an even more comprehensive approach to tackling this crisis. New Britain has the third-highest rate of opioid-related deaths. That is scary, my friends. In the coming months, we will be rolling out a new public education campaign, we will host Narcan training seminars, and provide other resources to do everything we can to stop our loved ones from dying. Our goal is to reduce the opioid mortality rate in New Britain by half by 2021.
Finally, I’d like to speak directly to the members of the Council. Last year, I challenged each of us (myself included) to try to improve communication, demonstrate a level of respect to each other, and trust that each of us is here to do the very best we can for our constituents. The campaign was over and it was time to do the people’s business. For my part, I have tried to be as accessible and open as possible. But to this very day there remain some who simply cannot let go of the politics and seek to obstruct at every possible juncture. After all the skirmishes that have been had in this chamber the past year, there has been absolutely no appetite for compromise. It’s like the word ‘negotiate’ doesn’t exist. That’s not what Government is supposed to be about. It impedes progress. Much of the accomplishments I discussed earlier have been done in spite of, rather than in concert with, this Council. We need to do a better job at prioritizing more important issues critical to the well-being of our city.
I began this address by saying that the state of our city is fragile. In my view, the biggest threat to that fragile stability is the continued lack of communication, leadership and trust by this Council. The political games need to end. We are now entering another election year and my fear is that the rhetoric and posturing will only increase as people fear for their re-elections over doing what is right. My hope is that it doesn’t…and if any of you truly want to work together, my door is always open.
I cannot say it any more plainly – the success of this City is absolutely contingent on effective and engaged daily management and for the past six years, that’s what I’ve done. And we’re doing it with fewer personnel than ever before. Remember all those economic development accomplishments? Our economic development team has 2 people, including the director. Our marketing team is one person, who isn’t even a city employee. Our Assessor’s office viewed 770 properties last year – they have just four people. Our Human resources department, who is responsible for over 600 employees and handled thousands of job applications last year alone, is only 2 people. You see the pattern here- When I tell you we are doing more with less, I couldn’t be more serious.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, people want to invest in cities who invest in themselves. Whether it’s our physical infrastructure or our human infrastructure, we must continue to make the critical investments needed to keep both strong.
We have worked so hard over the past six years to change the perception of our City. We have turned the page to a new and brighter chapter in our City’s history. But, like anything else, without constant attention in the proper areas, we will see our City struggle. We must work together.
Again, as I deliver this address for the 6th time, there are many uncertainties on the horizon, and the one constant in life is that change is inevitable. We can either be changed by it, or we can have a vision and be the agent of that change. Let us embrace that change, be a visionary, have the courage to tackle the unknown and strive to prepare ourselves for a successful future. I will continue to work hard to not merely keep our City afloat, but to keep it sailing toward the horizon, prepared for what may come and poised for future success.
God bless you all, and may God bless the great City of New Britain.