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Downtown forums first step for Finizio

Published February 25. 2014 4:00AM

In campaigning for mayor of New London in 2011, Daryl Justin Finizio said a Finizio administration would not ignore any sector in its efforts to revitalize the city. This campaign of inclusion, combined with a vision of where he wanted to take the city, were key factors in him earning this newspaper's endorsement and becoming the first elected mayor in more than 90 years

Yet two years into his term, many merchants in a vital section of the city, its downtown City Center District, say they feel excluded and ignored. His vision of a "Renaissance City" seems painfully nebulous to a merchant wondering if she can keep the lights on.

The fear and frustration of downtown business owners came through clearly in Day Staff Writer Lee Howard's front-page story Feb. 23, "Hard winter, city hall frustrate NL merchants."

They are alarmed by the business failures they see around them, the increasing vacancies and the lack of any signals that these trends will reverse.

They point to fewer police officers on the streets, a product of drastic reductions in department staffing. They complain of a poor job by the city of clearing the piles of snow from in front of their businesses, deterring potential customers. They see a failure to enforce parking regulations, leaving on-street spaces tied up all day.

Most alarming, they view the Finizio administration as detached from their struggles and unresponsive to their concerns. Mayor Finizio contends that criticism is unfair, and maintains he has an open-door policy. To its credit, the administration did alter the snowstorm parking-ban policy after receiving complaints. It now aims to get the cars off downtown streets during non-business hours.

However, in politics it is all about perception. For Mayor Finizio, who has indicated he wants a second term, the perception that his administration is neglecting the downtown is not a good way to get re-elected.

Critics cannot fairly lay all the blame at the mayor's feet. Small retail shops face many challenges, including the growth of Internet purchases for items and services, the region's lackluster economy, and of late an especially cold and stormy winter.

It is also true that Mayor Finizio and his administration faced serious fiscal problems upon entering office. Unrealistic budgets and overspending had depleted the city's fund balance - its fiscal cushion. Many maintenance needs long went ignored. Most fundamentally, the city's tax base is not sufficient to pay for needed services and overburdened taxpayers resist at the ballot box any attempts to raise taxes higher.

Without adequate resources, argues Mayor Finizio, he cannot clear city streets as well as he may like; or hire as many police officers; or fix an aging infrastructure.

Yet his diatribe that past councils "ran (the city) into the ground" and "the people who used to run the town wrecked it" was unhelpful and will only deepen divisions. Such talk seeks to exonerate the mayor from any culpability for current problems. This far into the mayor's term, blaming previous leaders sounds more like an excuse than an explanation.

Such an attitude is not in keeping with the image the mayor preached in his campaign. "Our new mayor must re-energize our community and must inspire a new level of civic pride and participation," said candidate Finizio. "Our mayor must exemplify a spirit of renewed optimism and hope."

That candidate also campaigned on "an economic development strategy that emphasizes small business growth," called for tax incentives and a streamlining of permitting processes, and endorsed bold-new taxing policies to encourage development.

To be fair, when running for office Mayor Finizio said improvement would take time. However, it needs to begin and that starts with getting the little things right and communicating better.

A good start is the two public forums scheduled for Wednesday at which the mayor will hear concerns about the City Center District, one at 9 a.m. and a second at 5:30 p.m., both in Council Chambers at City Hall.

The forums will be most effective if the criticisms are constructive and the suggestions instructive. The mayor's critics may revel in his struggles and pine for his defeat, but the election is almost two years away. In the meantime, the focus must be on getting the city turned in the right direction. There will be ample time for the debate to come.

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