Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Can Somebody Say Amen!

Middletown Common Council chambers were packed Monday night, mostly by supporters of the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen, and the concept of feeding the hungry. Sympathetic residents, member of the faith based community, and patrons of the local soup kitchen gathered for an agenda item upon which no action would need to be taken.

Ron Krom, director of St. Vincent dePaul, and Kokomo Rock, of 191414 Ministries served as spokespersons for the contingent.

Krom explained that while a new state law, passed Friday by the State House and Senate, and signed by the governor today, allows charitable organizations to distribute food prepared in kitchens which are unlicensed, there were some outstanding issues to be addressed in town.

"The bigger question is how did we find ourselves in a
place where we needed the entire State of CT to bail Middletown out of a situation that it should never have found itself in," Krom asked. "There are many laws on the books that are foolish and that are ignored by local governments across our State. Many other cities and towns in CT have soup kitchens, shelters, transitional living facilities, church outreach dinners, or similar charitable activities, and it is a well known, common practice for people of faith to participate by donating food that is prepared in their homes. Middletown is not unique in this, but somehow only our City Health Department has decided that this is a legal battle worth fighting.

"These last few months during the country’s worst economic calamity - where friends and neighbors are losing jobs, income and security – Middletown is prohibiting its citizens from sharing food with one another. The City, through its health department, is sending memos to its faith communities to “remind” them that the only food that is safe to share with the poor is food prepared in kitchens that the Health Department has licensed.

The problem is that this is not about food safety. This did not begin because someone got sick at a soup kitchen or shelter in town. This came about because of a legal problem. In an effort to be consistent, to appear as if they are not selectively enforcing the law, the Health Dept. feels compelled to curtail the food sharing practices at the Soup Kitchen that the faith communities have been engaged in for many, many years. The City looks to the faith communities and non-profits to provide many services for its citizens. It is shameful to ask us to do that and then to limit our food resources."

Krom asked the elected officials in attendance to take a stand for charitable giving by assuring that ordinances are interpreted and enforced in the way they are intended.

"For me, this has been an issue of faith," Krom said. "
I think there are many more in this room tonight who are also here because of their faith. It is common in the Christian tradition to affirm a statement with a simple 'AMEN.' For those of you here tonight who have listened to my testimony and wish to affirm what I’ve said, at this time I’d ask you to please stand and say 'AMEN.'"

At his request, nearly the entire room stood and responded with a resounding 'amen.'

Rock echoed Krom's sentiment
and enthusiasm for the cause of fighting hunger.

"I've seen some sorry messes in my time, perpetrated agains the interest of the poor," Rock said. "But this is one that fairly takes the cake. Let us resolve to go forth resolved to not let another sun set when we have to ask, 'Will I fear to feed the hungry from the resources of my own table.'"

When Council members asked Assistant City Attorney Tim Lynch, and Health Department Enforcement Code Officer Sal Nesci whether the new state law would put an end to action at the state health department, Lynch indicated that it was Food Not Bombs which requested the hearing, and it would be their decision to call an end to the hearing. Lynch also indicated that Food Not Bombs, which is suing the city on a perceived first amendment violation, has not given any indication whether they will withdraw that lawsuit or not.

In other business, the Council voted to fund a new electronic scoreboard at Palmer Fields with state money from the Local Capital Improvement Fund. The $165,000 state-0f-the-art scoreboard would replace a much older model currently used, which is in need of repair. Advocates for the scoreboard indicated that Palmer field was used frequently by city teams, and generated income through state, regional and national tournaments held there.

The Council also voted $30,000 to fund continued pick-up of bulky waste throughout the city until a study is done of the recently-passed ordinance which required a fee for each pick-up. That ordinance was criticized after city streets, especially in the downtown 'sanitation district' became lined with bulky waste over the summer.

Council members quizzed Public Works director Bill Russo about the situation, and why bulky waste had not been removed immediately. He, and Nesci explained that the new ordinance required them to cite property owners first, and only then remove the waste.

Council members urged Russo and his department to pick up waste immediately, record information about property-owners who were violating the code, and pursue reimbursement later.

Later in the meeting Council members voted to re-examine the bulky-waste ordinance after it had been considered by the Ordinance Study Committee, the Health Commission, and the Public Works Commission.


Ken Krayeske said...

Is it just me or does it seem insane that the city council approved $165,000 for a new scoreboard yet did nothing to appropriate monies to help feed hungry people?

Anonymous said...

the council needs to make sure everyone in the city gets a fair share not just the northend like vinny was looking out for.

James Streeto said...

Hey Ken!

How's the semester going?

To answer your question--we didn't appropriate any funds. The LoCIP funds which paid for the scoreboard are actually STATE funds, administered through the city. They can only be used for capital improvements. So we could have used them to repair a roof, improve a playground, or repair sidewalks, but not to make direct contributions to a nonprofit for feeding people.

The City DOES donate directly to nonprofits (and our total this year was in excess of 165K). These are called "health grants" and go to nonprofits providing services to less fortunate middletown citizens. I'm not sure if we donated to St. Vincents--I believe we have in past years. I know we gave money this year to a battered women's shelter, and, I believe, to CHC for their dental clinic (I might be wrong on the dental clinic).

You raise an interesting point (which doesn't surprise me :)) but have missed the larger issue here. This is the richest society in human history. And its wealthiest members have seen their incomes and property increase above inflation steadily for the last 25 years.

Why do we have to choose between athletic facilities and providing food (AND shelter AND HEALTHCARE) to all of society's members? Why can't we do BOTH?

Bear in mind, in this regard, that the city's only sources of funding are state and federal pass-through funds, and property taxes. The latter are at least somewhat regressive. I for one would prefer to see state and federal aid increased, so we could increase our health grants, and assist middletown's many worthy non-profits.

Those of you who follow this blog should be aware that next year's municipal budget will be every bit as challenging as this year's budget, if not more so. The temptation to cut health grants is severe. Please lobby for at bare minimum, level funding....

iMN said...

No, it's not just you, Ken. Ridiculous.

I do think that food poisoning is very serious. What happens if a bunch of homeless people turn up dead of food poisoning or all start arriving at the hospital at the same time with the same stomach issue? I'm fairly certain that the public support for this group - if it were the source of contamination - would be gone.

Maybe some level of cooperation would have been more beneficial. If the health department isn't inspecting these facilities, then maybe it should. Maybe staff the distribution events and examine the food. But just like the story says it's a situation where the department put itself in a position where it needed to present itself as a consistent implementer of policy. Hopefully the Food Not Bombs folks weren't openly hostile to the health department agents when they arrived... but this kind of thing can often be chalked up to poor people skills. Hopefully that's not the case.

Anonymous said...

Ken good question to ask, but surprised that you did not look up the LoCIP grant information on the CT Gov. web site. Or just type LoCIP into a google search. http://www.ct.gov/opm/cwp/view.asp?a=2985&q=383108
It in the documents of the Office of Policy and Management.
To save you time, here is the FULL list.
A) ROAD construction, renovation, repair,or resurfacing,
B) SIDEWALK and pavement improvements,
C) SEWER facilities/lines construction, renovation, enlargement, or repair,
D) PUBLIC BUILDINGS, other than schools, construction, renovation, code compliance, energy conservation and fire safety,
E) DAMS/BRIDGES/FLOOD CONTROL construction, renovation, enlargement, or repair,
F) WATER TREATMENT OR FILTRATION facilities/mains construction, renovation, enlargement, or repair,
G) SOLID WASTE facilities construction, renovation, or enlargement,
H) PUBLIC PARKS improvements,
J) EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS systems improvements,
K) PUBLIC HOUSING renovation and improvements,

I look at this list and have to wonder, what the priorities of the city are. Seems like these funds could have been used for any number of projects that would have benefited all the residents of the city and not just the sports lovers. I just have to shake my head. Oh and back to the hungry, the city has already spent close to $20,000 in defending itself with the whole Food not Bombs, health department debacle. Those funds might have been used to help feed the poor.

Anonymous said...

Also, groups like Food Not Bombs don't require money to do what they do. They just need to be left alone (i.e., no cease and desist orders, citations or arrests) in order to continue sharing food with folks and informing people about issues of poverty, hunger, and war.

Hopefully that can happen now that the recent change in the state health code has pretty much settled the issue.

Anonymous said...

The scoreboard money whch is added to the extra $13M extra we already payed for the new school the democrats scammed us on,

Also the end of the meeting grilling the chief about the naming of a federal building shows were they are at it not watching out for the general public just their frioends and relatives

Ken Krayeske said...

Attorney Streeto -

Thanks for asking, my semester is going well. Four classes, and only 200-plus days till graduation (not that I'm counting...).

Merely because the state says cities can spend LoCIP taxpayers dollars in whichever extravagant ways they feel does not make it right to spend $165,000 on a scoreboard.

If you or anyone on the Middletown City Council can prove, that amortized over the next 10 years, that that scoreboard will generate $500,000 in income, then I might suggest that the investment is worth it.

However, bearing in mind the list of items that LoCIP funds can be spent on (thanks to the link provided by anonymous, whoever you are), I will argue that $165,000 on a scoreboard is not any city's highest priority.

Mind you, Fenway Park maintains the traditional use of the hand-changed numbers scoreboard on the left field green monster. And no city council should fall victim to the sports world's version of keeping up with the Joneses, and try to build a local version of Fenway's extravagant Diamond Vision screen.

In these tough economic times, I suggest that LoCIP provides an opportunity to address creatively hunger issues:
K) PUBLIC HOUSING renovation and improvements,

Perhaps building a community kitchen in Middletown's public housing facilities might be a good use of that $165,000. Or perhaps Middletown could use the LoCIP funds creatively and build a public kitchen facility in one of the city parks, as LoCIP covers improvements to city parks, as well. Understanding that Middletown receives the services of CRT, it is without question that Middletown has poverty issues to deal with.

There are dozens of ways to address the issue of hunger through the LOCIP guidelines. Governments just have to think creatively.

If not hunger, then at least four other structures on the list rank as higher priority than keeping track of runs, hits and errors:

E) DAMS/BRIDGES/FLOOD CONTROL construction, renovation, enlargement, or repair,
F) WATER TREATMENT OR FILTRATION facilities/mains construction, renovation, enlargement, or repair,
G) SOLID WASTE facilities construction, renovation, or enlargement,

I guarantee, that based on the American Society of Civil Engineers' report card on our decaying infrastructure, that Middletown has issues with infrastructural facilities larger than that of a scoreboard.

Jim, I trust your judgment, I just think that given the myriad problems Middletown faces today, spending $165K on a scoreboard is akin to putting coins in jukebox when O'Rourke's is burning down.

Ken Krayeske