Colin A. Young
New London — Downtown business owners, property owners and residents filled the City Council chambers this morning for the first of two community forums to air their frustrations with City Hall and to take the first step in finding a solution.
They asked Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio whether businesses are a priority for the city and said they want the city's help in ending "neglect" downtown.
Finizio said he called the forums to hear the concerns and ideas of the downtown community to move the city forward.
Business owners have cited a number of issues that they say cause direct harm to their businesses, including: garbage collection, snow removal, parking, a diminished police presence downtown and an unreceptive city administration.
"These problems have an immediacy to them and we ask that the city works with the City Center District to solve them," said George Dowker, president of the City Center District. "We believe the cause of the problem is the lack of enforcement of city ordinances, which are inadequate."
Dowker asked that the city commit to working with City Center District to review and revise the relevant city ordinances and the enforcement of them.
"I still believe the opportunities before us are much greater than the challenges," the mayor said. "But the challenges are there and need to be addressed."
Jack Chaplin, who runs Chaplin's restaurant on Bank Street, said, "The bottom line is [whether] businesses are a priority for the city because they drive tourism, they drive economics for the city."
Issues with trash collection and snow removal, Finizio said, stem from the fact that the city simply does not have enough employees in the Department of Public Works and other city departments to do a garbage pickup and plow the streets during a snowstorm. Likewise, there are not enough police officers for the department to have a constant presence downtown.
"Our staffing levels are low, we know that. This was, in part, to balance our budget. Staffing has been cut across the city," Finizio said. "It needs to be restored for services to be restored."
Finizio said he believes the minimum staffing level for the police department should be 80 officers and he will fund the department at that level in his next budget request.
Though business owners expressed frustration with the state of affairs, they also urged the mayor to work with them to fix many of the issues.
"I'm here for one reason, I think, in summation, it's simply a matter of neglect. What I'm hearing are excuses," said Antonio Suarez, owner of Northern Light Gems on State Street. "What I'm hoping will come out today is not a reason why it has happened, but a solution."
Suarez said part of the problem is that there is not a feeling of partnership between downtown businesses and City Hall.
To fix many of the issues addressed at the forum, Finizio said, city residents may have to bear the burden of a tax increase.
"What we had was a system where we were spending but we were not matching it with revenues we were collecting honestly, we were taking it out of the kitty and the kitty ran out," Finizio said. "Now we're at a point where we have a tough choice to make. How much harm does the tax increase potentially do you versus how much harm does not having the cops or not having the infrastructure repairs do you? ... That's the debate we're about to enter into as a community."
Editor's Note: New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said he wore a hat during two City Hall forums on Wednesday to cover “sparring-related bruises and injuries” he suffered while boxing recently in New York.