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    Tuesday, August 09, 2022

    Mayor: Port Authority and corporate ‘overlords’ are exploiting New London

    Crews unload road salt from the Singapore-flagged bulk carrier Asian Majesty in 2019 at State Pier in New London. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

    In this proud 400-year-old city our ancestors sacrificed their blood and risked their fortunes for that improbable victory of the Colonies over Great Britain. The genesis of that rebellion was unfair taxation by a powerful and out-of-touch sovereign. The colonists rose up to stop their assets from being usurped to enrich an occupying overlord. Ironically, New London has been subjected to the same mistreatment by a new overlord, the Connecticut Port Authority, profiteering from our greatest asset, our deepwater port.

    The new quasi-public agency has pressed forward over the past two years with redevelopment of the State Pier facility with no consideration for the local impacts and with never an intention of sharing future revenues with the host city. The disregard shown to the city’s interests in just the first 10 months since the CPA signed a Harbor Development Agreement with the private, for-profit corporate partnership, North East Offshore, has been striking in its arrogance.

    A heretofore thriving regional road salt supplier, DRVN Enterprises, is being dismissively put out of business with the loss of its local supply chain and numerous jobs.

    A thriving break bulk cargo trade, conducted by the previous port operator, Logistec, has been completely shut down with the loss of that local supply chain and approximately 70 full-time and part-time longshoremen jobs. Even two small family-run commercial fishing businesses have been callously threatened with eviction and extinction.

    The CPA has unilaterally decided that the greater economic benefits promised from its port redevelopment project justify sacrificing these local businesses. The city has had no voice in these decisions. That lack of participation by the host city is surely calculated because under the current partnership plan with NEO, the city is not simply being deprived of a fair share of the future profits from the development, the city’s taxpayers are actually being forced to underwrite a significant portion of the CPA’s future revenue, as well as the corporate profits of NEO — the partnership of energy giants Ørsted and Eversource.

    City government is principally financed through the levy of local property taxes. The property tax system is inherently regressive, demanding a larger share of family income from the lowest earners. In New London, the people on the lowest end of the economic scale pay approximately 16% of their annual income to meet their tax obligations. In stark contrast, those at the highest end of that scale pay 6% of their income. The inequity of the property tax system in New London is exasperated by the forced exemption — due to its nonprofit or government status — of nearly 40% of the property in this densely populated, 5.5-square-mile city.

    Raymond E. Baldwin, then chief justice of the state Supreme Court, wrote in a 1960s’ opinion that “exemption from taxation is the equivalent of an appropriation of public funds, because the burden of the tax is lifted from the back of the potential taxpayer who is exempted and shifted to the back of others.”

    In New London, one of the most economically distressed cities in the state, the burden of providing government benefits to those who are exempted from paying has been breaking the backs of our people for decades. If the city’s annual appropriation ordinance itemized the public funds necessary to subsidize the property taxes for all those who enjoy an exemption, that single line item would be more than $30 million.

    This historic inequity is appallingly compounded by the injustice of forcing the most economically disenfranchised taxpayers in the state to contribute to the profits of two huge private corporations who pay their corporate officers tens of millions of dollars annually. New London families with a median household income of $40,000 are being forced to subsidize the $20 million annual compensation of Eversource’s CEO James Judge and the $15 million base salary of Ørsted’s CEO Max Nippers.

    The city’s taxpayers are being forced to underwrite a percentage of the funds the CPA spends for every other harbor improvement project across the state. New London’s assets are shamefully being seized to subsidize development in wealthier shoreline towns. The city’s assessor has valued the tax exemption for the State Pier facility conservatively at somewhere between $1 million to $1.5 million in lost tax revenue to the city annually.

    In this transformational time when the curtain has been pulled back on systemic racism in our society and the state’s structural economic inequality has been exposed, this project should be a model of how to build economic equity into a key economic development project. Instead, the CPA and its current plan to redevelop the State Pier stand as a symbol of institutional resistance to change.

    Inequities, including those upon which the current Harbor Development Agreement is designed, must be corrected before a partnership can be forged between the CPA and the city. The people of New London must have a voice in decisions that affect development in our city and we should not be forced to subsidize the revenues of a quasi-public agency or the profits of its corporate partners.

    The CPA, Eversource and Ørsted must recognize their obligation to pay their fair share in property taxes to the city and two years of lip service and broken promises must be replaced with a genuine commitment to economic justice for the people of New London.

    Michael Passero is the mayor of New London.

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