Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Help Replace Our Trees -- Your Donation Will Be Matched By Sustainable CT

The City of Middletown has been losing trees at a rate of approximately 100 per year. The city’s current budget for tree planting is $8500 per year. To address this alarming situation, the Jonah Center and the Urban Forestry Commission are collaborating on a campaign to increase the city's tree-planting budget by $50,000, to a total of $58,500.
In the course of this campaign, some people told us they want to donate their own money to plant trees. That's commitment!  While figuring out how to receive those donations, we heard about Sustainable CT'sprogram to match dollar for dollar all community-generated funds for qualified projects through IOBY (In Our Back Yards) – a crowdfunding service. So, your $20 gift will instantly become a $40 gift.
Sites for new trees are being considered, with priority given to Middletown's North End, where the tree canopy is less than in other parts of the city, and to high visibility commercial corridors. Donations from Portland residents will be used to plant trees in Portland.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Mayor Florsheim Releases Budget--No Tax Increase

Mayor Ben Florsheim has proposed a 2020-21 budget that includes no increase in property tax (the mill rate remains 36.0). His budget proposal promises no city fire tax increase, no water increase, no sewer increase, and no city sanitation increase.

Despite having no tax increase, Florsheim is proposing 6 areas in which the city would be investing for the future:
  1. $209,000 for information technology which will lead to a significantly more advanced and accessible city government.
  2. $27,000 for a multi-year effort examine race relations in our community and confront inequities in economics, education, policing, and more. 
  3. Funding for the addition of a new police officer this year.
  4. $75,000 to hire a professional firm to develop a riverfront master plan, and to fund projects and activities along the riverfront.
  5. $50,000 increase in the city’s tree-planting budget, to replace trees killed by invasive species.
  6. Full funding of the Board of Education’s $2.5 million request for operational increases, as well as investing $1 million towards a capital plan for our schools. 

His budget address is below.

To the residents of Middletown:

In the midst of these uniquely challenging times, I am grateful for the opportunity to share an overview of my 2020-21 city budget proposal, and look forward to getting your feedback. This proposal is the start of a process of which I hope your voice will be a key part. In the coming weeks, we’ll hold virtual budget hearings to make sure that the Common Council and I are focusing on the right issues and planning properly for the challenging and unpredictable year ahead. For now, I want to take this opportunity to outline my budget proposal, how we came up with it, what it means for you, and how we plan to proceed from here.

First, what I am presenting today is not the final budget, but a proposal that is subject to changes should the Common Council decide to make them. As I wrote above, the Council will hold hearings over the coming weeks and my administration will work with them to settle on a final product that I hope will receive bipartisan support. During the first few months of my term, I have been gratified by the close working relationship we’ve had with both Democrats and Republicans on the Council, and I’m eager to continue that collaborative partnership on the budget.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made this a particularly complicated time to make budget decisions. We are only beginning to glimpse the toll that COVID-19 is going to take on our economy, and while we’re hoping that most of our emergency expenditures on things like personal protective equipment will be reimbursed by FEMA, it will be a while before we know for sure. As we make our way through this process, I am prepared to work with the Council and the public to ensure the City of Middletown is playing an active role in supporting businesses and residents in order to keep our economy and our small businesses going.

In spite of all the unpredictability, I am incredibly proud of the budget we are introducing, and of the team that put it together. And while we don’t know what the world holds for us in the year ahead, what we do know is that Middletown is on strong financial footing and we are well-prepared for whatever harsh winds blow in our direction. We have a growing economy, an expanding tax base, a AAA bond rating, and a low debt service. Moreover, the biggest expenditures and debts that we have taken on in the last few years are all investments that are laying the groundwork for even more economic vibrancy-- things like the water and sewer reorganization that will open up our riverfront, historic investments in parks, roads, and education, and construction of a new middle school that is on track to be the most innovative new school facility in the state of Connecticut.

It is because of all those factors, and because of the great efforts of dedicated public servants both current and former, that I am proposing a budget today with no tax increase-- the first true zero-increase budget in a generation. And even though we’re not raising taxes, this is not an austerity budget; in fact, it’s the opposite of that. We’re continuing to invest in the future of a city that means so much to us all, and that is poised for great things in 2020, 2021, and beyond, and we’re doing it while maintaining the quality of city services and managing one of the most well-run and fiscally sound employee pension programs anywhere in the United States.

At the beginning of our budget cycle, I asked each department head to present me with three things: first, a flat budget with no increase other than contractual obligations; second, a budget that cut 5% from their department; and third, a “wish list” of items that they would increase spending on. It’s important to think about the budget holistically; some departments run leaner than others, and some need more in a given year but less in the next. For every year that I am in office going forward, I want to think about the budget not as a static document that gets submitted once per year, but as an ongoing process that anticipates what we will need-- and what we can afford-- in years 2, 3, and 4, and make decisions based on what those needs and wants look like, year in and year out.

On the city side, we wrote what is essentially a level services budget. We’re not adding new positions, issuing new debt, or otherwise dramatically changing any structural elements of how we’re spending money and on what. That being said, there are some really exciting elements that I want to highlight, because I believe they are going to lay the groundwork for the amazing progress we all want to see Middletown make over the next few years.

First, we’re funding a $209,000 capital increase to our Information and Technology Services Department, which is going to translate into a significantly more advanced and accessible city government. We’re seeing in real time how important technology is to running the modern world, and this new investment will prepare Middletown for a post-pandemic future in which every resident can be more connected and informed about their community than ever before.

Second, we’re providing $27,000 in additional funding for a unique multi-year effort by the Human Relations Commission and the Middletown Racial Justice Coalition to interrogate race relations in our community and confront the ways in which both explicit and implicit racial bias contribute to inequities in economics, education, policing, and more. The money is going towards professional staff who have been leading trainings, performing research, and making policy recommendations to city leaders on how we can make Middletown a more welcoming and inclusive city for everyone.

Third, we are continuing to abide by the findings of a recent study showing that Middletown Police Department is understaffed for a city of our size, and adding funding for the addition of a new police officer this year. I’m grateful to have inherited a police department that places a high premium on hiring only the very best people, and is working hard to diversify the force in new hiring, bringing in more women, people of color, and Middletown residents to the department. I have so far had the privilege of swearing in one new officer as mayor, and I look forward to bringing on board a new recruit of the same high caliber this year.

Fourth, we are actively planning for the redevelopment of our riverfront, budgeting $75,000 for projects and activities, preparing to hire a professional firm to develop a riverfront master plan, and using our extremely strong revenue numbers to help defray the cost of the water and sewer regionalization that was essential to opening up the former treatment plant site on the bank of the river. Beyond that, we are also continuing the funding into 2021 for the Fourth of July Festival and Middletown Pride, two signature events that, like our future riverfront, will play a huge role in bringing entertainment and economic development to our growing downtown.

Fifth, a pressing but underreported local issue in recent years has been the die-off of our urban forest. Invasive species have been killing trees in the Forest City at four times the rate they are being replaced, which has major consequences for our air quality and our overall quality of life. The Middletown Urban Forestry Commission brought this issue to light in partnership with the Jonah Center, and I am proud to include in this budget an increase of $50,000 to the city’s tree-planting budget. New trees will contribute to our environmental, economic, and public health in myriad ways, and I’m excited to partner with the Commission to get the ob done.

Sixth, we are doing right by our future. As mayor, I’ve benefited from the thoughtful, long-term approach that previous city leaders have taken to previous budgets. I want to do the same thing for those who come after me. That’s why we are fully funding the city pension accounts, increasing funding for one-time capital expenditures to create a true capital budget that is distinct from our operational budget, and continuing the landmark investments in education that have put Middletown Public Schools on the map not just statewide, but nationwide. I am happy to share that we are recommending full funding of the Board of Education’s $2.5 million request for operational increases, as well as investing $1 million towards a capital plan for our schools. Once that middle school is finished, we’re going to need to make some real improvements at our elementary school buildings, and we’re preparing today to make sure we can afford it tomorrow. I have been so pleased to work with Dr. Michael Conner and his team on this, and I am confident that continued partnership is the way to unlocking the potential in all our students.

Finally-- this bears repeating-- we’re accomplishing all of that and more with no tax increase. And when I say no increase, I mean no increase, period: no revaluation adjustments, no baseless revenue projections, no gimmicks. The mill rate last year was 36.0, and the mill rate this year is 36.0. Not only that, there’s no city fire tax increase, no water increase, no sewer increase, and no city sanitation increase.

When I was running for mayor, the issue I heard more than any other when I was knocking on doors was that even though people love living here, the cost of living is getting too high. I believe in the efficiency and efficacy of public services, and in Middletown, that’s what we have. But I am against regressive taxation, and that’s what our property tax system is here in Connecticut-- regressive. Our tax structure asks the most of people and towns that are least able to pay, and even with a zero increase, a Middletown resident still pays almost five times the dollar amount in taxes on their car as they would for the exact same car in Greenwich. It is a system that rests at the root of our cost of living crisis in Connecticut, and it’s long past time for it to change.

We can’t do it alone, of course-- and we can’t do it overnight. What we can do is work hard to run our city well, doing the very best we can for our taxpayers, and that’s what I believe we have done. It’s been a team effort in every sense of the phrase, and I am including in that team people who are no longer in city government but whose efforts will be felt in the progress we make for a generation to come. I want to especially recognize the city’s finance department, led by Carl Erlacher, Diana Doyle, and Tayna Oliver-Perry; the team in the mayor’s office, especially my chief of staff Bobbye Knoll Peterson, budget analyst Rohan Manning, and the amazing Linda DeSena, who plays every role that is asked of her and then some. I also want to mention our emergency management staff, particularly Chief Rob Kronenberger and EMD budget director Tina Gomes, whose leadership has been especially critical in the present moment.

Finally, I would remiss without mentioning the contributions of all our current and former elected officials who make Middletown work, in particular our former mayor, Dan Drew, and recent council members who are no longer serving but whose efforts on recent budgets laid the groundwork for this one: Bob Santangelo, Carl Chisem, Rob Blanchard, Mary Bartolotta, Deb Kleckowski, Seb Giuliano, Vance Cotten, Gerry Daley (who laid the groundwork for Middletown’s economic growth at the helm of the Economic Development Committee), and the late Tom Serra, who knew the ins and outs of the city budget better than anybody, and whose legacy will live on in the quality of life he helped to create for the city that he loved.

Thank you for reading. As I said at the top, this is just the beginning, and I will continue to post updates here about the next steps in the budget process. With so much uncertainty out there, the Council and I will need to be creative in how we get this done, but we can’t do it without your help and your buy-in. I hope you’ll continue to be involved.

The opportunity to serve as your mayor is the greatest honor of my life. I promise I will continue to work hard with the great team I am blessed to have as we move our city forward.

Mayor Ben Florsheim

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Fiftieth Anniversary of First Earth Day on Wednesday

The first Earth Day was April 22, 1970.  I was a seventh-grader, and there was a huge buzz around the impending event.  Programming at the school was organized around the event.  A favorite teacher gave me a challenging book to read.  Teach-ins were planned and held.  According to an estimate on the EPA website, some twenty million Americans participated in peaceful public demands for attention to the environment on that day -- in 1970, that was ten percent of all Americans.  Media coverage reached many more.

Earth day was a high-water mark in civic engagement around environmental issues, and action followed.  Later in 1970, the EPA was created.  The Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, led to improvements in water quality that we continue to enjoy to this day.

Earth Day and the events surrounding it have continued to be a focal point of environmental concern and activism.  The scale of participation has increased worldwide but declined domestically  Today, it would take demonstrations involving thirty-four million Americans to match the scale of the first event.  But this year, there will be close to none: a global pandemic has shut down most public gatherings.

You can still be involved, and there are many things going on.   Wesleyan University's Sustainability Office has created a calendar of Earth Week events for you to use.  Wesleyan student Maggie O'Hanlon has prepared another list of events that you may find useful.  And Connecticut's Sena Wazer, the fifteen-year-old activist prodigy who is a first-year student at UConn, is promoting a "Climate Strike" on Friday that you can attend from your personal computer (sign up in advance).

Neither our current distraction by the epidemic, nor the attenuated nature of the fiftieth anniversary of the first Earth Day will reduce the need for a flood of activism in the face of the climate crisis.  Along with encouraging you to participate in the events linked above, I invite you to join me for an examination of crises and the way we deal with them.  I will give a talk entitled "Bending the Curves: Coping with Crises from Car Crashes to Coronavirus to Climate Change" on Earth Day at 8:30 p.m. and on the following day at noon.  Join via facebook by navigating to the Radical Sustainability facebook page, or use the event name: Bending the Curves.

(updated 04/19 at 10:45 p.m.)

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Updates and Resources in the Arts

From Kisha Michael, City Arts Coordinator

Friday, April 10, 2020

2020 Memorial Day Parade Planning Underway

From Ken McClellan.
The Middletown Council  of Veterans is organizing the  2020 Middletown Memorial Day Parade!

I want to thank past participants, and hope that you will join us again this year, in our tribute to military veterans and their families.

We are hoping that the CoVid-19 outbreak will have settled by the end of May and we can all get together on Main Street.  If health restrictions have eased, the parade will be held on May 25.

This year, our theme is honoring African-American Veterans.

Following the parade, there will be a short memorial ceremony on Union Green (South Green) during which we will award trophies for outstanding march units.

Groups that wish to participate in the parade, please contact McClellanKA@comcast.net, or by USPS to:

Council of Veterans of Middletown
ATTN: Memorial Day Parade
58 Bernie O’Rourke Drive
Middletown, CT 06457

You are also invited to attend the Memorial Service at the State Veterans Cemetery on Bow Lane at 2 PM, hosted by the 7th District of the American Legion.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Council Meeting Goes (Almost) Without Glitches

The Common Council held its first virtual meeting last night, carrying out its usual business if not as
usual, certainly far better than one might have expected given complete social distancing between council members, the mayor, city staff, and the public. The meeting was relatively smooth, with most council members visible and audible for the entire meeting. Two dozen members of the public were in attendance, 3 spoke during the public hearing. 
The internet feed dropped out once, in the middle of Mayor Ben Florsheim's explanation of his efforts with the State Department of Transportation. But the feed returned after only a few minutes. 

The Council was unanimous in its support for a resolution calling on the Department of Transportation to immediately suspend work on the St. John's Square Project until the state meets with a Committee of City of Middletown leaders, provides results of traffic and pedestrian studies, and considers alternatives to the changes as currently proposed. Councilman Ed Ford asked Mayor Florsheim whether the state delegation was involved in the project. Mayor Florsheim responded that the delegation was aware of the issues, but was more involved in the overall aspects of the Route 9 project and the funding of projects. He said he was coordinating with the city's delegation on this project. 

The Council voted, unanimously, to postpone its decision on raising the fees to use picnic areas in city parks. Councilman Gene Nocera, who was one of the sponsors of the ordinance change, moved to table the consideration in light of the economic situation, "I don't think that we should be entertaining this any further until we deal with our economic base." 

The Council also voted, unanimously, to allow residents to defer the payment of city property taxes for 90 days. Instead of being due on July 1st, they will be due on October 1st. This also applies to Water and Sewer bills, and municipal district trash bills. Councilman Grady Faulkner asked whether passage of this measure would have an impact on whether the city would still have enough cash flow to continue to pay employees. Florsheim indicated that the Finance Department had indicated that this was true.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Common Council Meeting Tonight: On-line and Active

Update from Bobbye Knoll-Peterson, Chief of Staff to Mayor Florsheim:  There will be public comment on the appropriation ... and on any other agenda item can be submitted to Linda.Reed@middletownct.gov

The Common Council will be meeting virtually for its April meeting, tonight at 7:PM. The meeting will be accessible to the public by one of two ways:
  • Through WebEx, a free application available on the internet. Join meeting 712 278 503, and use the password Middletown.
  • By the telephone.  Phone 1.408.418.9388, and use the access code 712 278 503.
The meeting agenda is otherwise typical: there will be approval of minutes, legal notices of appropriations, budget transfers, grants, payment of bills and then a series of resolutions and ordinances. These include a change in park fees, a deferral of tax and utility payments, and a vote on DOT Main Street work.

The council will consider raising the cost of reserving a picnic area in city parks, the fee for residents would rise from $25 to $75, and the fee for non-residents would rise from $25 to $150. Picnic areas like the Arline Rich pavilion in Smith Park are used by families for large birthday celebrations, as well as by local organizations like the Westfield Residents Association.

The council will vote on whether to allow residents to defer all property taxes and utility charges for 90 days. This opportunity was made possible by Governor Lamont's executive order, but it needs to be adopted by the City.

The council will vote on a resolution to ask the State to suspend all work on St. John's Square, until traffic and pedestrian studies have been completed, and the Department of Transportation has met with City leaders and considered alternatives (previous Eye article). 

A Pause That Makes Sense: A Common Council Resolution

I want to acknowledge how hard it is to turn our attention away from the virus crisis - I truly hope that all of you are as safe and well as you can be under the circumstances.  We are all proud of Middletown for the way that we come together as a community, even as we are each caring for our families, our co-workers, our neighbors and ourselves.  

Unfortunately, the issue of the state's planned construction on Main Street and downtown has not resolved. 

You may know that back on March 10th, Mayor Florsheim arranged for a public meeting with the CT Dept. of Transportation, which was limited to just 50 people at Macdonough School and others online.  Many important concerns were raised; the planned work will harm pedestrians, businesses and residents, just to make it easier for cars to move through town.  It has been roundly rejected by locals at every opportunity.

However, without any regard for this public input, the DOT has instead decided to accelerate their planned construction on Rapallo Avenue, Spring Street and Main Street in the next few weeks.  

Our Common Council - amidst all of their other worries at this time - has bravely decided to adopt a resolution at tonight's meeting to ask the CT Dept. of Transportation to pause their work in downtown (while continuing the work on the bridge) until further review and consideration is given.  I am hoping that all of us can take a moment to encourage them in this step - they need to know that they have our support.  

Please email mayor@middletownct.gov and ask that he and the Common Council continue to fight for fair consideration of Middletown's concerns.  This support from us needs to continue past this evening's council meeting, so please let the Mayor know of your support even if it is not sent today.  If you would like to watch the council meeting by online or listen by telephone, follow the directions listed at this post.  

Thank you.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Silliness in the Time of Corona

A "teddy bear picnic" of about 20 bears sits in the front window of John Nelson's Lorraine Street home in Hartford's West End. (Kassi Jackson/Hartford Courant)
From The Hartford Courant article
on Teddy Bear Hunts.
Teddy Bears' Picnic

 John Walter Bratton -- 1867-1947 (composer)
 Sung by Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and many others.

If you remember this song, you're over thirty & probably can't be trusted. But your grandchildren (or great grandchildren) might be involved in the cross-Connecticut teddy bear hunt (from The Hartford Courant):

From East Haven, to Hartford, to Greenwich, neighbors offer a break from social isolation: Teddy Bear hunts

And maybe your grand-children (or great grandchildren) will enjoy this classic song (also mentioned in the article). (Do you remember marching to it?)

The Teddy Bears' Picnic

If you go down to the woods today
You're sure of a big surprise
If you go down to the woods today
You better go in disguise
For every bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain because
Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic.

Every teddy bear who's been good
Is sure of a treat today
There's lots of marvelous things to eat
And wonderful games to play
Beneath the trees, where nobody sees
They'll hide and seek as long as they please
Cause that's the way the teddy bears have their picnic
Picnic time for teddy bears
The little teddy bears are having a lovely time today
Watch them, catch them unawares
And see them picnic on their holiday
See them gaily gad about
They love, to play and shout, they never have any cares
At six o'clock their mommys and daddys
will take them home to bed,
Because they're tired little teddy bears.

  The song has a long history and was the theme song for a Saturday morning radio program--was it on WTIC. Its provenance appears in a description in the Library of Congress online (https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200197902/)

And some of the many versions on youtube are here: