NEW BRITAIN — In his bid for another term, the mayor is campaigning on a theme that he held property taxes steady for two years, runs an above-board administration and is steering this troubled city toward better times.
His opponent accuses him of secrecy and arrogance, says he’s fudged the budget numbers with back-room fund transfers, and warns that the city is headed the wrong way.
That is the basic storyline of the 2013 campaign as Democratic Mayor Tim O’Brien tries to hold off Republican challenger Erin Stewart. And with a few variations, it’s remarkably similar to the 2009 campaign.
This year’s election is no replay, of course, since the names and positions have changed in four years. Back in 2009, it was Stewart’s father, Timothy, who was the incumbent fighting to stay in office, while O’Brien was the outsider campaigning to give him the boot.
But some of the core themes are identical. Both times, the challenging candidate has run on a reform platform that demands more honesty in budgeting and promises more openness in city government.
O’Brien lost a close decision in 2009, but beat Mark Bernacki in 2011 when Timothy Stewart was retiring. In both races, O’Brien took the role of an outsider trying to clean up city government.
This year, 26-year-old Erin Stewart presents herself and her slate of Common Council candidates as a fresh alternative to Democratic control of city hall. She promises “Team Stewart” will do more than just talk about unity.
“I will seek to make city government the most open, honest and transparent system in the state,” she said. “Diversity and inclusion will be my priorities. There will be no blaming of others or finger-pointing.”
O’Brien defended his record, saying, “My administration is open and has taken steps to make information more accessible online and at city hall. I talk to residents every single day, and not just during scheduled office hours. As for what I’ve done to improve the transparency of our city government as a whole, I signed our city’s first ordinance that allows for public participation on special session dates.”
The city’s website is often outdated by months, though. In late October, the most recent common council minutes posted were from June 6. Erin Stewart says that has to change.
“Taxpayers need to be kept informed of the decisions of their government,” she said. “City councilors currently cannot be reached via email through the city website. This should be addressed immediately in order to connect taxpayers to their leaders.”
Erin Stewart proposes holding town hall-style meetings at neighborhoods throughout the city, and scheduling council meetings where the public may question city officials and department heads. She pledges to restore the monthly open-office hours that O’Brien discontinued.
O’Brien, speaking about his campaign, said little about Erin Stewart or her positions, referring instead to his performance since he took office in 2011, the year her father left office after four terms. O’Brien said he inherited a budget deficit, a demoralized and understaffed police department, a badly underfunded school system, unchecked blight and long-neglected parks and streets.
“I have been able to turn things around and ended the most recent budget with a surplus — without increasing taxes,” he said. “This year I kept the total amount of city taxes the same, though the state property tax revaluation changed what people pay individually. I was able to close the deficits that I inherited by consolidating city departments and more efficiently administering the city budget.”
Republicans accuse O’Brien of raising taxes, and emphasize that car owners are paying more this year. But O’Brien’s advocates counter that most single-family homeowners are paying the same or lower real estate tax because even though the city’s tax rate rose this year, the state-mandated revaluation reduced property valuations.
Neither candidate would commit to not raising taxes next year. O’Brien, who merged numerous city departments and eliminated at least one, said only that he’d seek more cost savings if he’s re-elected.
“I don’t make false promises and I don’t say things people want to hear,” Erin Stewart said. “The truth is, I will not know the status of the city’s finances until I get into city hall and determine where we stand.”
She criticizes O’Brien for raising the city’s bond debt by $65 million in a single year. O’Brien defends the borrowing, saying much of it was necessary to offset years of neglect in the past. Part of that money went to education projects — including a massive replacement of outdated textbooks — that Erin Stewart voted for on the school board.
Erin Stewart promises she’d fill the long-vacant job of finance director, restore the municipal development department, employ modern energy-management software in city buildings to reduce utility costs, and create a “rainy day fund” in the city budget specifically to bolster school finances.
When asked what expenses she’d cut, she replied, “A great place to start will be to eliminate the city government jobs that have been created for friends of the current mayor. I am referring to the ‘community organizer’ position, the ‘events planner’ position, the mayor’s ‘consultant’ and the public relations firm hired by the city.
“These are not core functions of government. They are unnecessary political patronage posts,” she said. “In addition to addressing the cronyism at city hall, I will eliminate the duplication we currently see in the form of two separate city finance departments.”
O’Brien said his administration is about new employment, better funding for education and stronger public safety.
“Hundreds of new, good-paying jobs are coming back to New Britain. With my work, there is a new aerospace factory being built at the former Pinnacle Heights, a blighted former factory on Newington Avenue is being refitted for what could be 200 manufacturing jobs, to name just two,” he said.
He said New Britain is on the rise.
“Because of my work, we are hosting successful festivals and events, paving streets, fixing sidewalks and parks, and getting blighted properties fixed up,” he said. “When I became mayor, the city was neglecting blighted buildings that were tearing down the quality of life in our city, parks were neglected and two-thirds of our streets were in a state of disrepair. We are turning all of these things around and moving our city to a better future.”
Erin Stewart sees it differently.
“I see New Britain becoming a more expensive place to live, work and raise a family,” she said. “Higher taxes, accumulating debt and a growing lack of transparency in city hall are not the way to keep jobs and families here. We need to change.”
This article originally appeared in the Hartford Courant.