Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Infrastructure Isn't a Sexy Campaign issue But it Should Be

Last week the news out of the Norwalk Public Works Committee of the Common Council was that one member, Kevin Poruban, phoned into a meeting. Two versions of what it meant quickly flamed out, one interpretation was that it was adaptive use of technology and the other that it was a stretch of the venerable Mason's rules.
Attorney Peter Nolin, head of the city's law department, said his unofficial opinion is that council members cannot vote by phone.

"Mason's requires somebody to be there," Nolin said, referring to the Mason's Manual of Legislative Bodies, which the council uses. "I think the chairman of a committee certainly has the right to allow someone to listen in by phone, but I don't think that qualifies as a (meeting) quorum or a right to vote."

But Council President Michael Coffey points out:
"We are living in a world where every form of communication has changed over the last decade or so," Council President Michael Coffey said . . . "It's an antiquated notion that, every time, people need to be there in person," said Coffey, a Democrat. "You've got people who work full-time jobs and have tremendous responsibilities that draw them to other parts of the country. . . . It would make sense to allow attendance to be construed more broadly."

It would be one thing to have attendence via some web based video conference tool, but that's not quite what happened or possible according to the Norwalk It Director.
Norwalk Information Technology Director Karen Del Vecchio said city hall's "old and limited telephone system" limits options for teleconferencing.

When Poruban phoned the Public Works Committee, for example, he had to call the cell phone of the public works director. The cell phone was placed on speaker phone and left in the middle of the meeting table.

Today's Norwalk papers detail the soggy tail of over 60 residents who cam to the Norwalk's Public Works Department to complain about persistent flooding. The centerpiece was a Norwalk resident who brought video of her home being flooded.
On Tuesday night, Margaret Peterson showed members of the Common Council's Public Works Committee videotape footage of flooding at her property at 6 Gwendoline St. About two dozen other Norwalkers with similar flooding problems nodded in empathy.

"I'm making an effort to work with the city. They say, 'We're working on it.' In the meantime, we're living in a sewage hole. I'm going to get flooded every time it rains. The city hasn't done anything to help me out," said Peterson, who acknowledged that her property lies in a low area. "These drains don't work. When it's raining, the water is coming out the drains. These waves are like whitecaps on my driveway.

"There's not enough drains and the pipes in the drains aren't big enough," Peterson said.
Complaints of backed-up storm drains and flooded backyards and basements are, to be sure, not new to the Public Works Committee. But heavy rains Aug. 27, followed by the remnants of Tropical Storm Ernesto drenching the region last weekend, may have brought the complaints to a record.

After the Aug. 27 rainstorm, up to 60 residents came to City Hall to complain, according to Director of Public Works Harold F. Alvord.
. . .
Speaking to The Hour earlier Tuesday, Alvord traced flooding to two problems: Stormwater drainage system capacity and maintenance. According to Alvord, the system is antiquated and in many cases undersized. Further, he said his department has neither the equipment nor manpower to maintain the system.

Said Committee member Douglas E. Hempstead: "It's time and money. That's really what it's going to be about."
State Rep Chris Perone D-Norwalk urged Governor M. Jodi Rell and the State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for increased municipal aid from the state’s Clean Water Fund to improve Norwalk’s aging sewer system. Rep. Perone said, “The bottom line is Norwalk needs more funding to study and improve our antiquated sewer system. Norwalk’s sewer system is supposed to weather 25-year storms, but because of development and trash thrown into the system, the system has a tough time handling the excess water. This is a huge problem that adversely affects people’s quality of life and needs to be addressed"

Meanwhile it turns out that due to increased revenues from property conveyance taxes, Norwalk for the first time in years achieved a budget surplus.
"The city ended up with a $500,000 surplus. A big driver on the revenue side was the conveyance tax once again. That came in about $3.8 million higher than what we budgeted for," said Fred N. Wilms, Board of Estimate chairman.

The board anticipated $8.2 million coming to the city through the local real-estate conveyance tax. The actual year-end total will run $12.1 million, according to the Finance Department. Wilms said the figure does not include recent transfers, such as the sale of the former Perkin-Elmer property on Main Avenue.
Having a surplus is a good thing, but it seems that the price of previous years of neglecting infrastructure leaves Norwalk creaking under 20th century decisions in a very 21st century world.

Stamford Advocate Council considers voting by telephone, Brian Lockhardt, 09/04/06
The Hour* subscription required, City: Flood relief will be costly, when it does come, Robert Koch, 09/06/06
The Hour* subscription required, Report: City ends fiscal year with $500K surplus, Robert Koch, 09/06/06


Anonymous said...

OK, I get it now.

The City of Norwalk completely abdicates its responsibility to maintain its sewer system and now a State Representative (a Democrat, surprise) tries to blame Governor Rell and the State of CT.

Give me a break. Maybe Rep. Perone should have been encouraging his City Council to meet its responsibilities. But instead, we the taxpayers of CT get to watch our money go to pay for new sewers in Norwalk because Norwalk screwed up. That's a great policy position.

Turfgrrl, I appreciate your posts, but you need to look at the news beyond Norwalk.

Anonymous said...

anonymous 9:26,

Why should turfgrrl look at the news beyond Norwalk? This is Connecticut LOCAL Politics.

Grumpy said...

I'm not sure the "old and limited phone system" in Norwalk city hall makes all that great of a campaign issue. But hey, I'm not familiar with Norwalk politics and I suppose anything's possible.

The thing is that "old and limited" could apply to a phone system that is less than a decade old. Also, I doubt that the cost of upgrading a town hall's computer network to accomodate videoconferencing is something that would sit all that well with the typical local taxpayer in Norwalk or any other town.

Personally, I think it's a bad idea to allow members to "attend" supposedly public meetings via video-conference. Connecticut's statutes requiring open public meetings exist for the reason of ensuring that public business is conducted in the full light of day. Take the idea to it's extreme and you could have town council meetings held via remote video links. Public participation in, or "attendance" at such meetings would end up being reduced to little more than watching a TV or video monitor.

As for the city sewer system, absolutely the state should pump money into the Clean Water Fund. Paying to fix these systems is often beyond the resources of available local revenues. Unfortunately, the Governor and legislature have raided the Clean Water Fund in recent years. As a result, necessary projects such as this sit idle because their cost is beyond reach of most municipalities.

The Governor and legislature did nothing to restore funding to the Clean Water Fund this year. I'm not sure why Chris Perone is directing criticism at DEP, the new commissioner has been pretty vocal about the need to restore funding. This hasn't prompted the Governor to take on the issue. On the other hand, Jim Amann and Don Williams didn't make any effort to put restoration of the Clean Water Fund on Rell's desk.

In my view, the campaign issue here should be whether or not candidates will go beyond election season rhetoric and will actually commit to holding their party leadership's feet to the fire by demanding Clean Water Fund money in the 2007 session.

bluecoat said...

Subpoena Battle Former Chief Justice, Still Fighting Legislative Summons, Compels Court Colleagues To Testify At His Disciplinary Hearing Today; Attorney General Criticizes Actions September 6, 2006 By LYNNE TUOHY, Courant Staff Writer

The Jury Saw The Politics Former state police major acquitted of larceny.

bluecoat said...

Rell open to cuts in gross receipts gas tax By:Keith M. Phaneuf, Journal Inquirer 09/03/2006 now that the citizens have been soaked and thanks to the soaking she can boast of New state budget running $212 million in the black By:Keith M. Phaneuf, Journal Inquirer 9/03/2006

bluecoat said...

BTW, it's probably time to build more buildings in Norwalk since buildings don't produce sewage , only occupants do!!!!

FrankS said...

Seeking or passing along costs to the State is an old political game, look what Rowland did for Waterbury and what Rell is doing for Brookfield.