Aldermen Set TIGER Free
(12/7/2010) (from New Haven Independent)
Despite two last-minute attempts to modify the plan, the Board of Aldermen voted Monday night to approve a $16 million federal grant that will provide for a major overhaul to the Route 34 corridor.
The city won the “TIGER” grant in October, but has needed permission from the Board of Aldermen to accept it. That approval came Monday night at a full board meeting.
The vote to accept it was delayed from mid-November, at the last Board of Aldermen meeting. Aldermen then said they needed more time to consider the details of the plan, including how much it will ultimately cost the city.
On Monday night, when aldermen met in City Hall, lingering questions had been answered for most legislators. Not for West Rock Alderman Darnell Goldson. He proposed two amendments that would have delayed or modified approval. Both were defeated in voice votes.
The $16 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant from the federal government will go towards filling in the Route 34 mini-highway downtown with high-tech labs and offices. The project is known as Downtown Crossing. But $16 million won’t pay for it all. The city has to put up about $6 million. That’s about a million dollars less than it needed last week, when Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced that she expects the state bonding commission to approve $950,000 for the project at its Dec. 10 meeting.
Kelly Murphy, the city’s economic development director, said the city will be looking for other federal and state money to make up the difference.
Mike Piscitelli, director of traffic and parking, said the money all needs to be committed by June 2011 so that construction can begin in the fourth quarter of that year.
“This is an exciting project,” said East Rock Alderman Justin Elicker when he rose to introduce the item to the full board. Elicker is the chair of the City Services and Environmental Policy Committee, which recommended grant acceptance. Downtown Crossing will “knit together our city” and correct the “disastrous” error of tearing down a neighborhood to put in a highway over 50 years ago, Elicker said.
Elicker acknowledged that the project may require taking on debt. But it’s an example of a “good capital expenditure,” in which the debt is offset by new revenue, Elicker said. For instance, New Haven’s new recycling toters cost more money, but their use brings in five times the debt service they created, Elicker said. “This project is similar to that.” The taxes taken in on the new development will offset the cost of development, he said.
“I’m concerned about this,” Goldson said. “We don’t have a development agreement before this board for approval.” Although the city has a commitment from developer Carter Winstanley about what he will build there, it isn’t formalized. A lot of the future of Downtown Crossing is based on a “mystical” development agreement with Winstanley, Goldson said.
Meanwhile, the city faces an $8 million budget hole in the current fiscal year, Goldson said. Other projects have promised to bring in money, only to fail to materialize, he said. For example, the Coliseum was demolished to make way for new development; now it sits as a parking lot.
Goldson proposed an amendment: that the item be committed to the the board’s “committee of the whole” (i.e. everyone, meeting as a “committee” rather than as the full board) until the city’s $7 million portion of funding has been found.
“I’m not anti-development,” he said. “But developers need to pay for it.”
Goldson’s amendment was voted down with no discussion.
Moments later, Goldson returned with another. He proposed that aldermen require that any bonding for the project be paid back in five years, not 10 or 20. That would minimize the interest paid over the long term, and thus the total cost of the project to the city, he said. “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it the cheapest way possible.”
That amendment was likewise voted down with no discussion.
Aldermen Migdalia Castro, Bitsie Clark, and Jorge Perez spoke in favor of accepting the federal money. By a vote of 24-1, the board chose to accept the grant. Goldson was the only aldermen to vote no. Aldermen Michael Smart, Jaqueline James-Evans, and Gerald Antunes passed. Aldermen Alex Rhodeen and Gina Calder were absent.
After the meeting, Elicker said Goldson’s amendment to limit the term of bonding goes beyond the role of the Board of Aldermen. The board’s purview is setting policy, he said. Goldson’s amendment was getting too much into the “nitty-gritty” of the development, into decisions that should be left to the “experts in the budget office,” Elicker said. You have to trust that they are going to try to save the city money, he said.
Goldson disagreed. “We’re fiscal agents for the city,” he said. “I want to make sure the taxpayers are protected.” His amendment is not beyond the role of aldermen, he said. “We set the budget every year.”
“We need to stop providing corporate welfare as a development tool,” Goldson said.
Goldson commented on the fact that his amendments had been voted down without discussion by his colleagues. “They finally learned the strategy,” he said. Goldson often offers objections and amendments that spur lengthy debates.
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