Mayor Edward M. O’Brien has had two unfortunate revelations in the last few days, and he must explain – very clearly and concisely – why voters in next month’s mayoral elections should not be concerned. A story in the local daily about a special deal for the city to avert default to the tune of $8 million, and the placing of the city on a “watch list” by the bonding agency Standard & Poors, have created an atmosphere not conducive to an incumbent.
O’Brien, who lost a September Democratic primary to challenger Nancy Rossi, is hoping to salvage his administration by means of a write-in campaign in the November 7 general election. He has an uphill battle as was exhibited by his predecessor, John M. Picard, who lost a similar primary to O’Brien and hoped for a write-in victory. He fell short of the goal, but not by much.
Administration officials and supporters are trying to soft-sell the deal that has been worked out by the city’s delegation to the General Assembly as a “guarantee” with a few strings attached. Under the terms, the city would receive the $8 million in state funding the current city budget has on the revenue side. That money has been held up, and was somewhat jeopardized by the continuing stalemate in Hartford concerning the state’s budget. As of this writing, Gov. Dannel Malloy is seeking a deal by the end of this week. Administration officials are saying, also, the deal is one that has been in the works for weeks and is “old news.”
Should the city opt to take the $8 million, a review board would be established to consult with administration officials on budget matters. The review board, according to the mayor, would be similar to the Municipal Finance Advisory Committee (MFAC) and offer suggestions and guidance while reviewing the budget on a regular basis.
The deal, which is similar to one worked out for the City of Hartford, is not like the Oversight Board the city had in the 1990s, when the state bailed the city out of financial ruin. According to administration officials it would not have veto powers over spending the same way the panel did 25 years ago. However, it would review city finances for a three-year period, looking for three consecutive balanced budgets, similar to the Oversight Board.
Rossi and Republican candidate David Riccio are concerned about the terms of the agreement, and would be stuck with the results if O’Brien opts into the pact. Regardless of who is elected next month, a decision to take the money would bind any future administration. They see the board, whatever one calls it, as having control over the city and its apparatus. Calling it an ”oversight board” or “advisor board” is a distinction without a difference.
Meanwhile, the city is among several Connecticut municipalities that were put on a “watch list” by
Standard & Poors. The bonding agency sees the current stalemate in Hartford among other things detrimental to the city’s financial future. With the city looking to bond $150 million for the new West Haven High School and for elimination of the 12-year-old operating deficit (now at more than $16 million), a downgrade in our rating would put the city in the “junk bond” category.
Rossi has been particularly hard on the administration, saying City Hall saw all the danger signs early in its tenure and still did not come up with budgets that honestly reflect the city’s money woes. Indeed, Rossi has accused the administration of overestimating revenues in order to balance out three budgets that added to the operating deficit.
Riccio, meanwhile, is calling for a total housecleaning in City Hall so that new ideas and new people can take a fresh look at the city’s financial condition and forge a new pathway.
As far as the deal with the state, Mayor O’Brien and his administration may be right in that the offer was made several weeks ago. They may be correct, also, in not worrying about the S&P announcement because the $8 million package will satisfy the credit agency.
However, most voters are not inside the political game and can only react to those things that come out in the media and elsewhere in the real time they appear. Mayor O’Brien needs to explain clearly why voters should not be alarmed at these revelations. He needs to allay fears.
His opponents’ reactions are reflections of those of the voters and cannot be dismissed as the hysteria of the ill-informed.
O’Brien must take those fears seriously and calm them effectively if he expects to win. Rossi and Riccio, meanwhile, must be enunciating their own visions for how they would effectively govern should they win next month.
We are heading into the final weeks of the campaign, and events are threatening to overtake the candidates. Effective communication can reverse the trend.