Tuesday, January 15, 2013
State of the City 2012
(Editors note - State of the City was written prior to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School)
Thank you, and of course I would like to thank you all of you for attending today’s event.
Congratulations are in order for Farooq Kathwari and his team at Ethan Allen as the recipient of the Cecil J. Previdi Award. As Mayor of City of Danbury I am proud to see Mr. Kathwari and his business flourish in our great city. Ethan Allen continues to set the industry standard for fine furniture and decor. I am not sure that the folks who started this wonderful company in Beecher Falls Vermont in the 1930’s could not have envisioned the success that Ethan Allen was to achieve, but it has undergone a remarkable transformation into a global powerhouse. Congratulations to Farooq and his beautiful family.
Danbury works because we all work together, regardless of party- to move the agenda of our community forward.
Of course all of us in government disagree from time to time, that’s to be expected, but when the debate is over - we figure out a way to compromise. I would venture to say that all of our state and local elected officials who serve the residents of the City of Danbury understand that finding common ground is the best way to move our government forward.
Hard and fast ideology on the left or the right is not a way to govern on a local, state, or national level.
It’s a lesson that our federal government might want to follow given the challenges that our nation faces.
Business Growth and Development.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we have had another terrific year as far as new business growth and development are concerned in the City of Danbury.
Western CT Health Network has moved quickly on it’s 300,000 square foot expansion, Western CT State University has broken ground on it’s new performing arts center, The Army has broken ground on the Army Reserve center at Lee Farm, and the Danbury Fair Mall has filled openings with diverse businesses such as LL Bean, Microsoft, Taste of Brazil, and Lifereel.
Dozens of small and medium sized businesses have opened throughout our city - including several new restaurants in the Mill Plain Rd area, the Shops at Marcus Dairy are close to completion with Panera Bread already open and Whole Foods scheduled to open early next year, the Reserve has quietly begun to pick up steam, The Matrix Corporate Center has done a phenomenal job at recruiting employers to their facility.
Indeed, on the west side of our city we have seen significant investment, most notably, Prindle Lane Centre which will consist of an extended stay hotel, and a restaurant which has already begun construction, and the Crowne Plaza Hotel which underwent a $12 million dollar overhaul.
Perosphere, a new start up biomedical business will be locating along Kenosia Ave.
Of course if we are talking about the west side of Danbury, let us not forget Belimo Air Controls - an expansion that will add hundreds of new jobs to Danbury and a new 120,000 square foot building. This is by far the largest economic development in Western Connecticut and is probably one of the best kept secrets in Western Connecticut.
In other parts of the city, Emhart - a long time Danbury company, has announced that it is bringing its US Industrial Headquarters to our city.
Kimchuk , a Danbury company headed by Danbury resident Jim Marquis - last years Previdi award winner, has added a 4th building and with it 50 new employees.
Two food manufacturing companies, Dere Street and Lesser Evil, have moved into Commerce Park and will begin operations shortly..
The Danbury Sports Dome - a multi purpose recreational facility is under construction in the Shelter Rock area - this facility will have 120,000 square feet of floor space for sports as diverse as softball to soccer to volleyball.
Several years ago I came to you and said that the City of Danbury along with the support of HRRA, our regional trash authority, would be interested in purchasing the Transfer Station located at 307 White Street. In the subsequent years we settled on a public-private partnership with the Winters Brothers organization that would result in the best of both worlds. No financial risk for the City, and a strong operator with a history of results. Part of our agreement included a host benefit fee of $1 per ton of trash brought to the Transfer Station. Yesterday the City of Danbury was presented with the first payment of it’s host benefit fee. Over $12,000 for the month of November.
Thank you Joe Winters.
These are tremendous economic development successes in the worst economy since the Great Depression, I tip my Danbury hat to this Chamber of Commerce members and it’s leadership.
Main Street continues to be a focus of our economic development strategy as well.
This past year we saw Union Savings Bank open a beautiful new building across from St. Peter’s Church.
Last month we announced national retailer Pricerite will make a $5 million dollar investment in the old A&P building on South Main Street.
There is more good news for South Main Street as I am proud to announce that the former law offices at the corner of South St and Main St will be leased to Doctors Express, a for profit urgent care facility that will invest approximately a million dollars in renovating the building and bring more economic activity to lower Main Street.
This past fall the Paul Mitchell School conducted it’s grand opening on the Green - representing a multi-million dollar investment.
In the past year The Danbury Main Street Partnership has shepherded many regulatory changes through the City Council and has worked to open a dialogue with Main Street stake-holders.
We’ve conducted merchant's meetings and we’ve conducted property owners meetings throughout the year to explain to our Main Street business owners the economic development tools that are available to them.
We’ve hired a Main Street Enforcement Officer for the UNIT to focus in on quality of life issues.
We’ve reduced permit fees, sewer connection fees, and zoning permit fees for new businesses on Main Street. We’ve also added new tax incentives to spur development along Main Street.
Finally, I have placed on our agenda the renovation and remodeling of Kennedy Park, the gateway to Main Street. It will not be the same as Elmwood Park - there’s just too much foot traffic, but the back portion of the park needs permanent infrastructure - things like water and electricity for the Farmer’s Market, and a redesign. Our makeover of Kennedy Park should include a programmable sign that will inform the public of upcoming events in the city, decorative fencing, as well as appropriate plantings.
With cooperation of the Board of Education, the City of Danbury has been busy planning and working on a number of educational improvement projects.
Since we all recognize that school success in in our public school system starts at an early age, we are investing in a new Head Start facility on Foster St. and will open next fall.
In the coming year, Danbury’s Promise for Children Partnership, a public - private effort to increase school readiness will be announcing a multi-million dollar investment by a charitable foundation in their efforts to work with our parents and our children to prepare them for academic success.
With approximately 75% approval from our voters this past fall, we are about to embark on a reorganization of our public schools by adding additions and more space to our elementary schools and adding two new learning academies to our middle school system. The added space to our elementary schools will help us continue to expand All-Day Kindergarten, the new learning academies will focus academic excellence in science, technology, engineering and math.
These key investments will drive positive outcomes and academic achievement for our students. That’s something that increases property values and helps with our economic competitiveness by providing an educated and motivated workforce.
Speaking of workforce at the secondary level I have asked our Superintendent to consider one other key element that I believe our institutions need to work on. Making our graduates “ready to work”.
Think about how many times that you have interviewed a prospective employee who was not “ready to work” Sure, they may want the job, but, they have a hard time in the interview process, and once hired some of these folks struggle to be successful at work. Being “ready for work” and understanding the culture of the modern workplace is just as important as technical knowledge and expertise.
It is my vision that every student who graduates from the Danbury Public School system will not only receive a diploma, but will also receive a certificate, certifying to the business community that they are “ready for work” - it could be an important part of the “Danbury Difference”.
A good educational system not only builds great scholars, a sound educational system should build great people. People who are ready for work, people who can participate in our democracy and know how to solve problems, people who know and respect the past, but look to the future.
That must be our mission.
In the coming year we are working a number of initiatives and infrastructure projects as well.
In the fall elections voters approved new bridges and roads, improvements to our Waste Water Treatment Plant, and our Water Plant.
City voters have also agreed to renovate the Union Savings Bank annex that is connected to the Library. We have designed the Danbury Innovation Center that will serve as a place of brainstorming, development of ideas, and a small business incubator - we hope to be open by August 1st.
To go with that initiative, today I am proud to announce that the City of Danbury, through our Office of Economic Development will sponsor the first ever Mad Hacker Social Media Conference in City Center.
I am also proud that Hearst Media has agreed to help sponsor our two day event. The Mad Hacker Social Media Conference will focus in on seminars, conferences and a related trade show to young entrepreneurs, computer and social media enthusiasts, and innovators and inventors from all walks of life.
A similar 1 day event in Westport attracted over 2,000 people.
I have also outlined a number of smaller, but, much needed improvements for our City. We desperately need a skateboard park in the downtown, I have asked our engineering department to begin to develop plans for one. We need to continue to improve Rogers Park and we are planning on improvements to crosswalks throughout Main Street and to Library Plaza. We will program money to preserve the Charles Ives House, and we will move the King Street School House to the grounds of the Danbury Museum and Historical Society.
Caring for the least among us.
Our community provides a tremendous amount of services to our homeless population. We were one of the first communities to develop a 10 Year Plan regarding Homelessness. In fact at this moment, across town, we are having our annual Project Homeless Connect event that connects homeless people with much needed services ranging from free dental work to housing assistance - a direct result of our 10 year plan.
The City of Danbury does more for the homeless population in the Greater Danbury Area than any other community. We have 5 shelters, transitional housing, permanent housing, Veteran Housing, I could go on and on. Yet, sadly, homelessness continues.
We will continue to develop housing opportunities for those challenged with housing issues and we will continue to ask the communities surrounding us to join us to do their fair share.
We are faced with a number of challenges as well.
If you were to ask me what the number challenge in the city has been in the last 5 years, it would be dealing with the economic crisis and its impact on city finances. Danbury has avoided the pitfalls of many communities by making the painful decisions early and making them often. We have revamped employee benefits, we have reduced staff - to the point that there are less people working for the City of Danbury now then in 2001 when I took office.
Finally, while our local economy is the envy of the State of Connecticut, the national economy and the state economy has put a substantial dent in our revenues.
The State of Connecticut continues to spend more than it has and to borrow more than it can possibly pay back. - we will all be paying the price for this soon. There is no doubt that the upcoming state budget will have an impact on our ability to deliver services next year.
Once again the federal government faces a “fiscal cliff”.
The impact of the Affordable Care Act has put tremendous pressure on our employee benefits. Some preliminary estimates given to us by our insurance carriers project a 28% increase in the cost of providing health insurance to city employees - this is unacceptable.
Today I can report that our books are balanced, our balance sheet is strong, but it has not been easy.
I would like to take credit for all of that, but, it is really the outstanding work of our finance team that makes it happen.
To manage city government in the new economy, we are taking a number of steps to reduce the size of our government, and to create more efficiencies. For example, we are in the process of rolling out a new Constituent Relationship Management system.
This system will replace the existing core computer system of the city - something that has not been done since the early 1990’s. Every single department will be impacted.
We will be able to operate more efficiently, and with less staff.
For our residents, we will be providing additional transparency in government activity. Meetings will be available in real time streamed on the web from the City of Danbury’s website. New cameras and recording equipment have been installed to provide a clearer broadcast. All recordings of meetings will be digitized and available in an easily searchable database on our website. A common format will be used for recording of minutes of meetings in all departments to make government easier to understand.
The new CRM system will allow us to do more reorganizing of city government. Over the next year or two, look for a major restructuring of departments as we take advantage of the benefits of the system - something we will need to do to adapt to the new economy.
But in spite of these challenges, I am optimistic about our future. Danbury is blessed with tremendous assets, a first rate hospital, a world class University, a vibrant arts community that encourages a sharing of ideas, a public safety system with metrics that are the envy of any city in Connecticut, and of course an economy that is the best in the State of Connecticut.
We area a triple AAA community with the lowest crime rate in the state and the lowest unemployment rate in the state - that is something we should all be proud of.
We are a community with people who hail from all over the world. A diverse community that is a model of common understanding, trust, and compassion.
For the last ten years I have been honored to be your mayor. Each day when I wake up and go to work I am excited about our future.
The job has its ups and downs, but as I remarked to a resident the other day, I have been incredibly lucky, I get paid to something that I love to do..
So today as we are on the cusp of gathering with friends, family, and loved ones for the holidays. Let us remember that these people are the true meaning of the season.
They are what is important.
Ladies and Gentlemen, that is the State of our City for December 2012.
May God Bless you and May God Bless our great city.
Friday, January 4, 2013
The recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has caused all of us in Connecticut to review our school safety plans, policies, and procedures.
In Danbury, we have reviewed every building's plans and have walked each school. Emergency plans will be updated and an assessment of the layout of each building will be conducted by a consultant to provide any thoughts and ideas on improvements that can be made to the structure of each building to enhance safety.
For the short term, we have hired a security company that will be working in each elementary school while we interview and hire Safety Advocates that we plan on deploying in each elementary school.
Many parents have requested that we post police officers permanently in each of the elementary schools. Unfortunately, most communities in Connecticut don't have the manpower to staff all of their elementary schools with a certified Police Officer indefinitely (in Danbury we need 25 or so new Police Officers). Becoming a Police Officer in Connecticut is an intensive and long process that typically takes almost a year for a civilian to become a fully trained certified Police Officer.
The Legislature should create a new certified position in public safety called School Safety Advocate.
Prospective candidates could attend a regional training academy of approximately 6 weeks that would be run by a blend of state police, local police, and school personnel. Classes on everything from school security, lock down procedures, first aid, active shooter scenarios, police procedures, communications, and other relevant school policies and procedures would be held. At the conclusion of the program, each graduate would be state certified as a School Safety Advocate and would be eligible for hire by a school district.
Having trained Safety Advocates certified by the state in each elementary building in the State of Connecticut would be an important step in formalizing and standardizing training across the state - and provide a new level of security for our children.
Recent events have taught us that when an event occurs in one of our school buildings, multiple jurisdictions typically respond (FBI, State Police, Local Police, EMT's, Fire etc.). It's important for the first responders to interact with onsite staff who have all been in trained in the same manner, and have knowledge of appropriate safety procedures regardless of what municipality the incident takes place.
Should the School Safety Advocate be armed? That will be a policy decision for the Legislature....