Tuesday, November 11, 2014
By ROBERT STORACE
NEW BRITAIN — Sitting in her office overlooking West Main Street Monday morning, Mayor Erin Stewart discussed finances and the budget, the New Britain Rock Cats and even meeting President Barack Obama in March.
Today, the 27-year-old Republican mayor marks her first year in office. During her inauguration speech, the city’s second female mayor promised transparency, “restoring fiscal sanity” and “making New Britain’s government work for New Britain again.”
While the mayor acknowledged raising taxes was a tough thing to do, she said she’s kept the promises that were made in her November 2013 speech.
“To say we were in a financial mess [last year] is an understatement,” Stewart said. “We were able to bring stability and responsibility back to the city’s budget. That was quite a feat.” The mayor counts dealing with city finances — including bringing on an outside finance team — as among her greatest accomplishments.
“We were looking at more than $55 million in additional bonding that we knew the city could not pay off,” the mayor said. “We literally maxed out the credit card and were in danger if we had an emergency like a hurricane. “We rescinded more than $20 million of the bond money that had not been spent yet.”
Another change touted by the mayor was her restructuring of city government. “Unfortunately, we had to have layoffs and raise taxes, but not before cutting the city budget by $16 million. That’s how much we were out of whack.”
The mayor, who is the daughter of former Mayor Timothy T. Stewart, was criticized during the recent election by opponents for raising taxes. “Because of frivolous spending, we had to raise taxes to offset the deficit,” she said. “I’m not proud of it, but I understand doing what’s right over what’s popular is better for the greater good.”
The issue of transparency wasn’t just a stump speech, the mayor said. Several Democratic aldermen, in fact, have credited her with being open in how she deals with them.
“I’m very proud of our transparency and open government,” said the mayor, who noted she schedules office hours with the public monthly. “One time, I stayed 5½ hours. It’s important because a lot of people are intimidated by City Hall, but I can be a sounding board for the public. That’s what I am supposed to do.” Saying “New Britain has the reputation of having very polarized politics,” Stewart said she added a personal touch by meeting each alderman one-on-one. “I wanted to know them as individuals. Everyone has their own passions and priorities.”
The roughest part of her tenure, she said, was learning about the New Britain Rock Cats’ secret deal to move to Hartford in 2016 and January’s injuries to police Officer Brett Morgan, who was dragged by a vehicle driven by an alleged drug dealer.
With regard to the Rock Cats, the mayor said she was “betrayed and disappointed.” The injury to Morgan, she said, “happened two months into my term. He still has two surgeries to go, and we are hoping he can come back on the force someday.”
The mayor was criticized in some quarters for meeting privately with President Obama when he visited Central Connecticut State University. “I caught a lot of flak for posting a selfie with Obama in the background,” she said. “But, it holds true to the motto I live by, and that is putting people over politics.”
Stewart said there is very little down time as mayor. “It’s tough on your personal and family life. I’m lucky that I don’t have a husband and children because balancing that would be difficult.”
This article originally appeared in the New Britain Herald.