Budgets, bags and the rebirth of a vital property

What do budgets, rubbish and the potential redevelopment of a former public housing project have in common?

New London.

Mayor Michael Passero is sending back to the City Council an amended city budget. He seeks to appease voters who filed a petition opposing the version passed by the council and signed by the mayor.

One big factor in the opposition to the budget was a new plan for trash collection and recycling that the mayor included in it. Many citizens didn’t like it. Passero, working with the council, has pressed the reset button on that as well.

But when it comes to the city’s long-term ability to pay its bills, it was a third story that ranks first — how successful will New London be in redeveloping for private industrial use, and taxation, the Thames River Apartments property that until only recently housed 124 low-income families?

As to the budget, the mayor has sent to the council a series of cuts that produce savings with a minimal impact on city services, while avoiding layoffs to already understaffed departments.

The proposal pushes off maintenance and repairs, while delaying equipment and supply purchases. Not surprisingly, Public Works and police take the harder hits, because that’s where the money is. The cuts total $424,150, bringing the city budget down to about $49.4 million.

Voters did not petition the education budget.

Granted, the cuts are small compared to the overall city budget, but there was no fat to cut. Burdened with a limited tax base because of the high percentage of tax-exempt nonprofit and government property in the city — 44 percent — New London has faced an ongoing struggle to limit spending and balance its budgets.

And Passero could have played games and bought time by urging the council to send the budget to a vote in November. Instead he is asking the council to act on his suggestions, which it should.

The mayor further recognizes that fueling the budgetary discontent was his administration’s attempt to introduce “pay as you throw” trash collection. Currently New Londoners utilize large bins for garbage and small, blue containers for recycling. It is a city operation.

The result is that much recycling material ends up in the trash bins, which the city pays to incinerate when dumped as refuse, costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

The administration’s planned solution was to require residents to buy yellow bags for their garbage, encouraging their use only for garbage, while converting the bins for recycling. But many residents balked, calling the $1 price to buy bags a hidden tax, expressing concerns vermin would tear at the bags, and warning that some residents would choose to dump trash illegally.

This plan, we still feel, was a good one, but the rollout was a public relations disaster and the public’s concerns should not be discounted.

The council is preparing to form a task force that will evaluate how best to handle trash and recycling. That’s a good thing. Passero said he expects this effort will lead back to a version of his administration’s proposal. Perhaps, but the task force should keep an open mind. Could investment in large recycling bins be the best and simplest option? Maybe. We await the work of the task force.

Finally, but most importantly, the city is preparing to buy the Thames River Apartments property from the Housing Authority for $185,000. This was part of the plan under which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development agreed to supply rental vouchers so that tenants could vacate the high rises, infested and in disrepair, and find new housing.

Adjacent to State Pier, it will be critically important for the administration to find a private buyer to raze the high-rise apartments and develop the land as part of expanded industrial development at and around the pier.

The Connecticut Port Authority will soon name a port operator with the goal of expanding the use of State Pier. The port is also expected to be used in support of offshore wind power development. Given all that, Passero expressed confidence the property will be redeveloped and produce significant tax revenues.

Budget fights come and go. The yellow-bag trash controversy could prove a footnote. But converting a public housing parcel to an economic and tax-generating engine is legacy material.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Pat Richardson, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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