Stafstrom: Moving Cities Forward Requires ‘We Before Me’

Stafstrom, Steven
Steve Stafstrom

Bridgeport State Rep. Steve Stafstrom writes in a commentary that “we must partner together, standing united as cities and suburban towns to help our cities thrive as the sustainable regional job creators and economic drivers we need them to be.”

From Stafstrom:

It is no secret that Connecticut’s economic recovery has not been as robust as it could have been. And, it certainly has been well documented that a large contributing factor is that Connecticut has lagged in its recognition that in the innovative and modern 21st century economy, businesses and young professionals are looking to move back to dynamic, livable, walkable cities. In increasing numbers, people of all ages and demographics are eschewing the suburban model that thrived in previous generations.

Connecticut is at a significant disadvantage by having cities which have been left to bear staggering legacy costs, resulting in high taxes, inadequate funding for education and reduced services. For far too long, the State has turned a blind eye to its cities, allowing them to suffocate under the economic and social costs they incurred generations ago in order to be the postwar, industrial drivers the State relied upon to build our 20th-century economy as businesses and residents fled to ‘greener’ pastures–both inside and outside of Connecticut.

Thankfully, many policymakers, advocates and businesses have now recognized that Connecticut’s future quality of life depends on the health and success of our central cities and have been working to reverse this tide. This is not an easy undertaking. To do so, we must partner together, standing united as cities and suburban towns to help our cities thrive as the sustainable regional job creators and economic drivers we need them to be. The growth of our State economy depends upon it.

Unfortunately, not all citizens of the State seem to appreciate this.  It truly is disheartening to hear the myopic views some have expressed in their criticism of the central tenets of recent State budget proposals–to stabilize the finances of our core cities and equalize the education funding formula. Some have suggested “poor management” is solely to blame for disparities between municipal finances, failing to appreciate that a broken, regressive property tax system has pitted municipalities against one another for decades. Or some continue to pay lip service or turn an outright blind eye to the fact that access to education in Connecticut is dependent on your zip code. Such mentalities are not helping our economic fortunes.

Consider this example: if the Governor’s budget proposal were to be approved as it currently exists, Fairfield has reported that it may need to raise its mil rate from 25 to 26 and might not be able to afford para-professionals in its third-grade classes. Compare this with neighboring Bridgeport which already has a mil rate over 54 and has been forced to eliminate para-professionals in its kindergarten classes (and does not have paraprofessionals at any other grade level). This discussion is certainly not intended to minimize the discomfort that this level of belt-tightening in Fairfield and other towns will cause, but rather to highlight and demonstrate the significant disparities that already exist under our current fiscal structure. Bridgeport spends $227 million to educate 21,000 students while Fairfield can afford nearly $167 million to educate less than half that many students. The suggestions that our core cities, like Bridgeport, are already receiving too much educational funding is counterproductive to growing our cities and to generating real economic returns for our State.

Our State’s challenges are real but surmountable. As we confront them, we as a State need to consider putting “we before me.” The collective mentality among towns and cities cannot be that spending cuts are necessary as long as they affect only other towns and not “my” own. To truly harbor a desire to see the State experience economic growth and success, everyone MUST be willing to invest in creating the dynamic cities which our 21st Century economy demands, even if those investments come at a near-term cost. As the budget process continues to play itself out in Hartford, my suggestion is that we all step back and recognize that we have a far greater interest in working together to grow the total size of the pie, rather than continuing to claw for a comparative share of one that is shrinking.



  1. Steve,
    Good to read some of your thoughts. I cannot remember your “big picture concept” about the future while you served our District on the City Council. I remember no curiosity for my observations, then or now, though I can say that while serving in Hartford you have directed me on one occasion to some State info on pensions.

    My wife, retired from Stratford Public Schools as a Literacy Specialist, is now in her third year at Curiale School, working with Kindergarten students who have no preparation for school entry including English language ability or knowledge of the alphabet. This year the paraprofessionals were lost, but the teaching staff and some grandparents endeavor to serve. (Compare the important duty they serve and the compensation levels to how we organize utility firm road cuts to be served by a public safety officer ON OVERTIME PAY rather than regular pay for work that is less hazardous than regular police duty and since 2012, seeing those overtime earnings increase pension payouts.)

    Steve, you served the City and now the State legislatively. You are a trained attorney who can explain any situation using “on the one hand;” and “on the other hand” depending on who is your client or what is your focus.

    You say, “Some have suggested “poor management” is solely to blame for disparities between municipal finances.” You know how things work in Bridgeport. You know how a Board of Finance leads to much more solid decisions in Fairfield, decisions that are argued by people with experience and skill, and that can be later defended. You know what can happen in Bridgeport where a legislative leader can huddle his council members together in an illegal meeting and without any public process use City taxpayer funds to pursue the personal objectives of 15 Council persons. You were there and as I heard you tell me, $1,000 is a small amount. But Steve, if it were so small, why didn’t Council members write out personal checks? After all you and they were the only ones getting the credit, right?
    Steve, let me guess that you are not and have never been happy for my advocacy of OPEN, ACCOUNTABLE, TRANSPARENT and HONEST. Why not? Am I doing the right thing to read, reflect and write? Perhaps I should be sending the info to another office? You are a nice guy with a nice home and family but why aren’t you more interested in helping Bridgeport clean up its governance act in the direction of “better practices?” When you think I am wrong in fact or intent, let me know, also. No problem having different opinions, but when we are not coming at a situation with the same facts and observing the same rules, we part company, I suppose.
    Finally, the pension bonding deal (2017) raised this week by the Mayor in Hartford is not trading an 8% interest rate for a lower 4% interest rate as we have been doing in Bridgeport in recent years with Bond refunding, as you know. The 8% mentioned is an assumed pension return that is being charged as a present value cost plus the actual pension underfunding according to the State actuaries I guess. Such a commitment limits City flexibility going forward in that Bond payments always seem to get paid, while contributions to schools are left by the Mayor and the Council as last items, and if they are not dealt with, well, there’s always next year, and the kids are penalized, and we muddle. Tragic? Call me and work on the real problems. Time will tell.

  2. JML, I hear your frustration and I again give you praise and admiration for your untiring efforts to be heard and recognized for your unselfish, knowledgeable advice on matters of finance on both the City and State level. You and a few others have soldiered on, despite being ignored rather than being invited in to share your findings. As a private citizen and taxpayer of Bridgeport I thank you for your determination, a lesser person would have given up a long time ago. It’s the same old players who will dig us into a deeper hole while they line their selfish, miserable pockets. I’ve witnessed this scenario too many times to count, Testa is the devil in the details, he’ll take our City down. The one accomplishment former Mayor Finch achieved was keeping Testa down on the farm. Ganim opened the barn door, and the monster is out again.

  3. Mr. Stafstrom, the sole responsibility for Connecticut being the way it is, is the fault of our elected officials. We’re the highest taxed state in the country, we have the highest gas tax in the country and some of the worst roads in the country. Now you people want to charge us $.05 for every plastic bag we get at the store. The list goes on and on. BTW you were on the council and voted for the sweetheart pensions for police and fire. You sir are talking BS like a typical politician.

  4. Andy, you correct about the pensions of the police and fire and how Mayor Finch and now Mayor Ganim are letting the hundreds of suburbanites who are members of both departments bankrupt the city of Bridgeport.
    Well bankrupt may be an over-exaggeration, but certainly lead the city down the road of financial ruin.

    1. Don, they have an easy fix and that is change the ordinance that states any road work or street closings require a cop to be present. Why is that? It’s not a state law it’s an ordinance passed in the ’70s (I believe).
      There is a state or OSHA course for flag persons at construction sites.
      We can always train our own residents for these jobs and have the contractor pay on time.

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