Eddie Perez

Chris Powell: Hartford mayor's brilliant fiscal overloading; will extortionist ex-mayor return?

Hartford’s Beaux-Arts City Hall.

Hartford’s Beaux-Arts City Hall.

Hartford could do worse than give Luke Bronin another term as mayor, as those who live outside the capital city may realize from former Mayor Eddie Perez's candidacy to return to City Hall.

A decade ago Perez got caught taking kickbacks from a city contractor and was convicted in state court of bribery by extortion. In case anyone had forgotten this, just a few weeks ago Superior Court Judge Cesar A. Noble revoked Perez's city pension. Perez's misconduct, the judge wrote, was "severe" and had caused people to lose confidence in the honesty and integrity of elected officials.

The judge may have overstated expectations of honesty and integrity in government, but at least Bronin seems to have run a clean administration, insofar as it can be done in Hartford. In any case he has performed a spectacular and lasting service to the city. That is, Bronin helped former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy snooker the General Assembly into passing legislation transferring to the state the city's more than $500 million in bonded debt, a measure legislators said they understood to be doing no more than giving the city $40 million in emergency aid. It may have been the Brink's Job of Connecticut politics.

The state's assumption of Hartford's debt will be worth millions of dollars to the city in interest payments every year, tens of millions over time. Of course this will cost state taxpayers the same amount. Governor Lamont's "debt diet" won't help; the damage has been done.

Will Bronin's re-election campaign tout the debt transfer? The mayor's boasting about it may not make friends for the city, but the people who were snookered can't vote there. While by seeking concessions Bronin has alienated the unions representing city government's employees, the debt transfer will save the city far more than concessions ever would. Somebody in Hartford should be grateful for that.

Perez isn't Bronin's only challenger but he is the best known and the only Hispanic in the race, which may mean something to voters if corruption doesn't. Like politics in Bridgeport, politics in Hartford is so grubby and grasping that city voters may consider corruption merely incidental, as voters in Bridgeport did when they re-elected Joe Ganim as mayor four years ago despite his conviction for bribery and extortion and his long imprisonment.

Ganim and Perez are Democrats and it already has been fun to watch Connecticut's Democratic leaders dance around an extortionist's return to power in the state's largest city. Imagine the awkwardness that might ensue if the capital city vindicated another extortionist.

But power will help the Democrats get over it, leaving the challenge to those remaining in the state who would prefer preserving some standards in public life.

That is, what does it say about the last half century of urban policy in Connecticut that city voters have such low aspirations or are so indifferent to integrity in government?

Could Eddie Perez's return to Hartford City Hall shock anyone in authority into suspecting that the state's urban policy doesn't work, that it just impoverishes, degrades, breeds dependence on government, and nurtures corruption? Could Perez's return even shock anyone in authority into suspecting that urban policy \ does work because it is meant to do those things, since they are so lucrative in politics?

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.

Chris Powell: As in Detroit and Central Falls, bankruptcy could finally make Hartford responsible

Constitution Plaza, in downtown Hartford.

Constitution Plaza, in downtown Hartford.

Advocates of a financial bailout for Hartford city government warn that a bankruptcy filing by the city will be a "black eye" for Connecticut, as if the state isn't already mortified by the failure of Gov. Dan Malloy and the General Assembly to enact a budget three months into the new fiscal year.

But last week a series of investigative reports by Eric Parker of WFSB-TV3 in Hartford examined the recent municipal bankruptcy reorganizations in Detroit and Central Falls, R.I., and concluded that the cities have greatly improved as a result.

Hartford's situation is much like those in Detroit and Central Falls before their bankruptcies, with debt and pension obligations outpacing revenue. Indeed, the two federal judges who handled Detroit's bankruptcy reviewed Hartford's financial data and recommended bankruptcy. While Hartford's city government would lose authority during a bankruptcy, the Detroit judges suggested that Mayor Luke Bronin could be appointed the city's emergency manager, thereby preserving some democratic supervision in the process.

Detroit, which long had been losing population and was becoming a giant slum, dragging its suburbs down with it, began to revive at the moment of its bankruptcy filing, Parker reported. That's when businesses gained confidence that management of the city would become responsible. Downtown is prospering again and real estate values in the city and its suburbs have risen sharply.

Detroit's bondholders and bond insurers absorbed huge losses, pensioners smaller but still substantial loses. The blow to pensioners in Central Falls was harder. But there probably won't be much private-sector investment in Hartford until the city, which is not only broke but riddled with corruption and incompetence, is reorganized both financially and politically, and that can't be done without pain.

After all, just in the last few weeks former Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez pleaded guilty to bribery and a developer, James C. Duckett Jr., was convicted of defrauding the city of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the guise of building a soccer stadium. Of course, Hartford's new minor-league baseball stadium was completed last year at $30 million or so beyond its $50 million budget even as city government had become insolvent and had stopped maintaining its schools.

The $50 million Mayor Bronin wants in additional aid from state government so that the city might avoid bankruptcy -- and probably only postpone it -- would pass the bill for the stadium along to municipalities that are not quite as corrupt and incompetent as Hartford is.

Far from giving Connecticut another "black eye," bankruptcy for Hartford would restore virtue to the city's bondholders and unionized employees, who long have been operating as if the city will be rescued financially no matter how incompetent and corrupt it becomes. For the bondholders and unions have enough political influence to prevent incompetence and corruption. Instead the bondholders have been indifferent and the unions have encouraged city government to keep giving the store away, especially to themselves.  

Imagine how different Hartford might be if, instead of assuming that state government would underwrite its corruption and incompetence forever, the bondholders and the unions were compelled to audit city government constantly to maintain its fiscal responsibility, thereby insuring their bonds and pensions.

But while cities can file bankruptcy, states can't, and the way things are going, Connecticut state government soon may be little more than a pension and benefit society cannibalizing public services.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.