In the Jan 7 edition, Mayor Nancy Rossi and City Council Chairman, Ron Quagliani, provided their assessment of 2020 and what goals they set for this year. In this issue, we asked Councilman Barry Lee Cohen, Co-Minority Leader (R-10), to offer his 2020 reflections, responses, and the priorities he feels the city should be focusing upon in 2021.
Being in the minority can be a daunting task in any legislative body, but in West Haven where politics is a contact sport, being in the minority can mean being ignored. Councilman Barry L. Cohen (R-10) has tried to give a voice to city Republicans, and has some definite ideas on how to make the city better.
Cohen admits as does all city leaders the COVID-19 pandemic has put a great strain on people.
“Last year, the pandemic loomed large and made for some very dark and tragic times for many of our families. It also strained most non-profit organizations’ resources, such as WHEAT, the Rotary and Elks Clubs, and the West Haven Community House. Each has traditionally been dependent on donors, social events, and other fundraising activities to support at need populations and civic activities,” he said.
Cohen concurs with Mayor Nancy Rossi that the pandemic has factored into many decisions that fueled some frustration and disappointment regarding city operations and events. However, he stressed that “the pandemic should not be interpreted as the main reason why West Haven has lagged behind other surrounding municipalities in promoting and executing economic development.” According to Cohen, “Economic development must no longer take a back seat. Years of economic neglect has negatively impacted taxpayers’ wallets and quality of life services that allow our families to thrive.”
In terms of economic development, Cohen provided the following assessment.
“Accelerating economic development should be the city’s absolute top priority to grow our revenue base. West Haven is a city of boundless possibilities, yet largely unrealized potential. As witnessed with stagnant new building permit revenue, the city would benefit by developing a comprehensive market plan to attract new businesses, as well as hire an economic development director that not only knows how to “close the deal,” but develop relationships with brokers, real estate companies, and key investors throughout CT and the Northeast corridor that keeps West Haven ‘top of mind’ in this extremely competitive marketplace.”
He sees the city has having things that should make other cities envious.
“West Haven possesses incredible assets: an exceptional waterfront, home to two world-class universities, a highly coveted, strategic location with easy access to major interstates, and an awesome train station for business and leisure travel,” he said. ”Unfortunately, the council has yet to see a true economic development plan.”
“Expanding economic development will be central to reducing the high tax burden we continue to experience. Some will place the blame squarely on MARB, however, our highly questionable financial decisions of the past in combination with rising taxes and fees has contributed to making West Haven less desirable than other municipalities for both small businesses and multi-national corporations.”
In terms of the recent audit of the FY 2021 budget, Cohen was cautiously optimistic.
“I recognize and respect the tough decisions that were necessary that has allowed the administration to report a favorable audit. However, please make no mistake: our general, “rainy day” fund surplus is predominately due to the infusion of millions of dollars in MARB funding that has helped to keep our city afloat. As for spending reductions, some were due to unfilled open or new positions, pending studies, or certain recommendations made by the MARB oversight board.”
Cohen congratulated the administration for meeting many of the requirements placed upon West Haven as a condition of MARB funding, and most especially the city’s finance team headed by Frank Cieplinski.
He sees the city’s budgeting problems going beyond the line-items, however.
“Budgets are more than balancing line items; it is ensuring that funds are used most effectively, regularly monitored and justified. As I stated during the last budget cycle, largely cloning the prior year’s department budgets in their entirety does not foster innovative thinking and high performance. In fact, such practices can inadvertently result in not constructively questioning the need for certain line items with the objective to maximize every taxpayer dollar,” he said.
Cohen is enthusiastic about the ongoing negotiations to redevelop the Savin Rock Conference Center site with the Smyrna Group, but equally concerned about the lackluster response received from the city’s request for qualification (RFQ) solicitation.
“As I’ve previously stated, the draft proposal by the developers exhibited energy, vision, and much-needed rejuvenation of this strategic shorefront location that I believe can and should be the foundation and catalyst of further redevelopment and revitalization along Captain Thomas Boulevard through the end of Beach Street,” he said.
Cohen said if a deal can be had, he is excited about “reimagining” and “rebranding” the area, and he believes the project will act as a “stabilizer” and “stimulus” for the area.
However, Cohen is also concerned that the city only received four proposals for the project with the Smyrna Group being the only real, viable choice.
“Blaming COVID-19 for the lack of response is not acceptable or believable,” he said. “Given the location, the lack of marketing and networking with potential developers and investors was sadly apparent. With that said, we all hope that this proposal will be realized.”
When it comes to the Haven, Cohen is as irritated as most others.
“To the credit of this council and administration, we’ve cleared virtually all financial obstacles for the developer to move forward. This was recently witnessed with our unanimous vote for our state delegation to request the state legislature approve the Haven location as a special taxation district. In my strong opinion, 2021 is a make-or-break year for the developer to truly execute or re-evaluate their development plan,” he said.
Cohen added the need for pinpointing other areas of the city.
“We also need to address the Boston Post Road and Railroad Avenue/Sawmill road corridors, along with a distressed downtown. As previously mentioned, our strategic location offers enormous opportunities for companies ranging from retail to high tech,” he said.
A final goal that Cohen would like to see significant progress made by yearend is a police pension plan.
‘We must aggressively identify the financial viability, limitations and benefits to transition to a defined benefit pension plan which must include a disability component. In partnership with our police leadership and union, I believe we would all ideally like a plan in place yesterday,” he saod/
Cohen offered the following closing thoughts.
“At times, the minority will be your opposition. However, we are not your enemy,” he said. “On behalf of fellow Co-Minority Leader, Colleen O’Connor (At-Large), our mission remains on improving the quality of life for every taxpayer and neighbor. We will never lose sight that elected officials are blessed to serve.”