Connie Visits The Yankee Institute's "Keep It Local Summit"

Yankee Institute Hosts Keep It Local Summit

Like most CT residents, I am very concerned at the direction our beautiful and once prosperous state has taken. When Yankee Institute for Public Policy, a well-known and respected nonpartisan CT think tank, put together a summit on September 30 in Wethersfield, I decided to go. The theme was ‘Keep It Local’. Speakers and panelists from across the country shared their extensive experiences on leading during crisis and how concerned citizens can advocate for their communities and navigate intelligently through these turbulent times.

The opening keynote speaker was Kevin O’Connor, a former U.S. Attorney for CT and an Associate Attorney General of the United States under the Bush administration. His resume is impressive. Google him.

His message was sweeping and I’ve condensed it to bullet points for the sake of this article:

  • Good leaders have vision. Empower people with a positive vision. You’re elected because people are unhappy and want change.

  • Don’t blame your predecessor. It polarizes people.

  • Surround yourself with talented people. Talent is the propulsion system that drives your vision.

  • Be articulate. Debate the message without attacking the messenger.

  • Have humility. Opponents might have some good ideas! Acknowledge and respect people who disagree with you. Like you, they are smart, dedicated and principled.

  • Have the difficult conversation. Don’t put your desire to be popular ahead of the public good.

  • Try. You may fail. Failure is a great teacher. The scariest people are those who fail and won’t admit it.

  • Never believe you’re indispensable. Cemeteries are full of indispensable people. Carve out time for your family. Never lose sight of what’s most important in your life.

I and many other attendees then faced a great disappointment. Yankee Institute had not made it clear beforehand that we could participate in only one of three topics offered each session. It was so disappointing to have to choose between a discussion on Regionalism and Local Control and a panel on The Future of CT’s Cities with Hartford’s mayor, Luke Bronin, Dr. Jonathan Wharton, SCSU professor and chair of the New Haven Republican Town Committee, and Tom Lasersohn, a former member of the Westport Finance Board.

I decided to hear what Hartford’s mayor, Luke Bronin, had to say.

Mayor Bronin did not discuss Hartford’s probable bankruptcy or address a possible state bailout. Instead, he spoke generally of the challenges facing all large cities that provide regional services to a hub of surrounding towns and receive no payment for those services. Half the city real estate is owned by nonprofits or tax-free institutions. Without those property taxes, it’s hard to fund needed city services. Businesses and people want to be near vibrant urban centers. Without a ready workforce and reliable transportation, businesses leave and take their jobs with them. With no jobs to be had, poverty becomes concentrated in the cities. Limited or no opportunities cause desperation. Crime soars. Cities should be engines of growth. For them to grow, we have to change the model and that takes money.

Dr. Wharton’s vision for getting the money to improve our cities suggests partnering with businesses and philanthropic organizations. People go where jobs are and where they are safe. He pointed to Rochester, NY as an example. New York has made a real effort to revitalize towns from blights to desirable locations. It could and should be done here in CT. Time and hard work are necessary to effect this change. It should have begun yesterday.

I left this session depressed. Mayor Bronin is a good, caring, and deeply frustrated man faced with too many catastrophes coming to a head. Hartford’s problems are too deep and too entrenched for a quick solution, but the next speaker had personal experience in rescuing a city drowning is fiscal debt.

Our keynote speaker at lunch was Charles Reed, former democratic mayor of San Jose and an Air Force Academy graduate. While he didn’t outright chastise Mayor Bronin, he shared his harrowing experience as mayor of a formerly failed city. He inherited billions of dollars of unfunded liabilities. Spiraling pension costs were a major problem. He called in a respected outside company to verify the numbers then educated the city on the budget. If they wanted to save their city, he had a three-pronged, painful approach that would work over time: higher taxes, cutting services, and pension reforms.

Mayor Reed dedicated himself to finding a way to make pension plans fair and sustainable. In 2011 he initiated pension reform, drastically cut city services, and stopped doing maintenance for 10 years. He said one of the hardest things he had to do was to chain shut the beautiful new library they’d just built. It stayed shut the entire ten years before they could afford to open it.

Other ways he helped turn the city around:

  • Switched the city to a transparent cash budget to SHOW full disclosure of what ISN’T being paid for.

  • Initiated an open bargaining process to public view and comment

  • Eliminated policy by surprise. Taxpayers knew what was being voted on 10 days ahead and had time to study it. Also, this allowed newspapers to investigate and write about the proposals, empowering voters to contact their city representative and voice their opinion.

  • Opened bargaining process to public view and comment. The public is happy to tell you when you’re doing something stupid.

After 10 years, the city became marginally solvent and the budget has shown a positive balance of slow, steady growth ever since. Mayor Reed accomplished his goal of saving his city with the help of actively involved residents determined never to return to the overpromised and underfunded ways of the past. There are thousands of eyes on the city budget now and citizen involvement is his proudest achievement.

The last panel I attended featured Stamford’s Mayor David Martin. He credits Stamford’s success to a healthy public/private partnership. Stamford attracts business by having a workforce and reliable transportation for them to get to work. He notes the workforce is surging in his town thanks to innovative advertising by businesses pooling their resources to stage special events in their downtown areas. People want to live downtown near cafes, art and entertainment. Stamford’s surging population includes empty-nesters who no longer want the hassle of cars and those expenses. This is an environment where people want to live and work. Cities can’t offer many incentives for companies to move here; the state has to do that and, presently, state policies discourage businesses and entrepreneurs. There are too many rules and taxes.

He suggests the state encourage start-ups. Build communities with green spaces: hiking trails, parks, bike trails, boating. The hardest thing, he says, is to integrate the generations. Cities must look for strengths on which to build and unite them. He also stated categorically that CT is not strong in engineering. We need a good central airport. We should concentrate on aerospace, which is global and IS our strength. He advocates for more technical schools and light rail public transit for millennials who don’t want to own a car.

All in all, it was a thought-provoking day. It was not all that I had hoped, greedy thing that I am, but I listened to new points of view from respected leaders and came away with much to ponder. There are no quick, easy solutions but concerned, intelligent people should be able to put aside their differences and discuss ways to turn our state around. It will take time so we’d better get started.

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