Yes, New London should explore revenue sources, but focus on the big picture

It is fine to explore potential new sources of revenue to fund city services in New London, but it will be effective strategic initiatives — both politically and in driving development — that will ultimately ease the tax burden on property owners in the Whaling City.

Mayor Michael Passero and the City Council recently received several recommendations from an ad hoc committee formed by the mayor to produce revenue-enhancement ideas. Chaired by city businessman John S. Johnson, it provided proposals worthy of further examination. The council referred them to its Economic Development Committee.

A proposal to assess annual inspection fees on rental properties — $100 on non-owner occupied two- and three-unit tenements and $40 per unit on properties with four or more units — appears to be more about improving the rental housing stock than generating revenue.

The money would provide for regular inspections of rental housing, aimed at making sure it remains well maintained. That virtuous goal would fight blight and help property values. But committee member Rob Funk, who works in the public schools Finance Department, said don’t expect it to be a big revenue producer. Speaking to the editorial board, Funk described it as revenue neutral, because fees collected would pay for inspectors and related costs.

When it comes to government services, revenue neutral can quickly slip to revenue negative. Also, would these fees work against the city as it tries to attract housing development tied to the worker expansion at Electric Boat? The city should proceed with the studying the idea, but proceed cautiously.

The same holds true for requiring residents to pay $50 annually for a residential parking fee per vehicle to park on city streets, both raising $1 million a year, according to the committee, and discouraging non-residents from taking up spots in city neighborhoods.

A proposal to install speed cameras on some streets with speeding problems, and creating a traffic court to collect fines for the city, seems misplaced as a revenue generator. Such decisions should be directed by public safety concerns. If some added revenues result, so much the better.

But Funk had it right when he said the committee found no pot of gold. And if there is an overriding concern about these proposals, it is that the revenue would largely come from the folks already paying the taxes.

A real game change will come in two ways.

Connecticut must recognize that its struggling urban centers are a drag on the state’s overall economy. There is a movement back to the cities, both among young professionals and older citizens near or in their retirement years.

But state policies have hamstrung Connecticut’s cities, all relatively small. They are the social service centers for the regions around them, but are stuck with limited tax bases due to the nonprofit status of the hospitals, service groups, public housing and government buildings that provide those services.

In many ways New London’s problems are Norwich’s problems, and Hartford’s and Bridgeport’s, and the list goes on. The elected leaders in these cities must form a unified voice for change, and convince their suburban counterparts that healthy cities, as economic drivers, are in their best interest as well.

The legislature needs to adequately compensate the cities for revenues lost to nonprofits that cannot be taxed. Connecticut must also provide these urban centers the ability to collect service fees to defray the police, fire and other services that large nonprofits, such as hospitals and colleges, demand. It is among the ad hoc committee’s recommendations.

How to revive Connecticut’s cities needs to be a central issue in the 2018 state elections.

Finally, the best revenue generator is growth, both new development and renovating and reutilizing the city’s rich architecture. Mayor Passero recently named experienced planner Felix Reyes as director of development and planning, a welcomed appointment. Rapid job growth at EB provides a rare opportunity to drive housing development, increase foot traffic in the downtown, and attract businesses to serve that population.

So, yes, consider ways to raise revenues. But in setting priorities, seizing the moment is paramount.

 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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