Fiscal bloodhound John Marshall Lee spends days and nights examining financial reports to raise questions about spending justification. Does a purchase jibe with what’s good for city taxpayers? He addresses a number of issues in this commentary including his take on City Hall’s consideration to relocate the statue of electrical pioneer Lewis Latimer. From Lee:
Have you ever gone out to buy something, perhaps on impulse, and discovered later it was not working out for you? What options were open to you? Could you return the items for a refund? Or credit? What if you were just stuck with the items? What did you do with them? Give them away? Or where would you store them? How do you account for it? What if we moved that same sort of questioning to the City of Bridgeport and look at recent examples of “City decision making”:
Someone in the Finch administration, perhaps Mayor Finch himself conceived that outdoor visual art in the public square might transform three underpasses (Main and North Frontage, Connecticut and Seaview, and Fairfield and Pine) into “exciting and inviting environments” thereby improving “the lives of daily commuters” and making “the area a destination for many others.” The idea was assigned to the Office of Planning and Economic Development and became a project. A contract was signed by the Mayor in summer 2015. It was NOT funded from OPED operating budget requests. Therefore it was likely spent from a Capital account with funds borrowed by the City, previously authorized by the City Council, but perhaps not specific as to project.
Firms able to assist in such installations are not numerous. In order to save time, normal bidding process was not used and a “Qualified Purchase Order” was cut to an Atlanta GA firm for “Lighting/Placemaking” to secure projection mapping at three sites located around the city. The purchase order totaled $375,000. The order identified this as a FY 2016 purchase and included in the design and programming were thirteen Lumen projectors, three custom media servers and other material for the rigging of all equipment out of doors all year ’round including thermal kits for each projector.
Perhaps the “transformation” efforts were delivered to the City and installed at two of the locations where folks could see the end result. But I can find no record of the decision making that went into the process, or into the decision making to terminate the project and remove the equipment. Questions are likely multiple at this point:
— In a City that continues to have financial problems, why is there not a better recognition that fiscal affairs, especially those separate from the operating budget that generates a monthly report for the City Council have practically no current or timely feedback to the taxpayers,
— So orders such as this may develop, become a project, and then be mothballed without public notice? Where is this equipment today? Is it safe and secure? What value was assigned to the equipment in the 2016 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report? Is it considered depreciable equipment?
— If the payment to the contracted firm was made in FY 2016 and was funded by bonding entirely, doesn’t that double the cost of this project to taxpayers so that $375,000 with any City expense included becomes almost $800,000 when paid over 20 years? Are we paying $40,000 per year for 20 years for this terminated project?
== How can we avoid this bad practice through Open, Accountable, Transparent and Honest reporting by City leadership? Maybe a new OVERSIGHT BOARD???
A more visible example of questionable City purchases stands in view on the plaza outside Margaret Morton Governance Center. The statue celebrates Lewis H. Latimer, an African American who resided in Bridgeport for part of his life and whose scientific and technical abilities contributed to the longer life of light bulbs. That statue has the power to inspire people today. I have seen it myself when introducing visitors to the City who stop to read the inscription.
The fact that it cost $64-66,000 is of secondary importance to me today. But as a participant in Neighborhood Revitalization Zone activity citywide, I can safely say this work of art was not part of the request by any of the NRZ groups. If it was paid from State of CT grant for NRZ projects, this is just another example of how purchases from grant or bonding funds goes off track, too often, and the public cannot see behind the curtain.
According to the CT Post the Latimer statue is to be moved, perhaps to the South End in conjunction with University of Bridgeport? Why? Why not keep this statue of an African American of significance in front of City Hall as witness to the world that economic development can flow from the humblest sources and that we must educate all the children in our City today to a better standard than currently. If the Latimer story is well told, often enough within this City, the statue will not need a “second chance” to be removed to another section where connection with the public is less frequent. He came to maturity and productivity in the years following the Civil War that we call Reconstruction today. As a son of runaway slaves and a man of skill and creative pursuit, what better model today do we have as a City today, for small-business enterprise and educational encouragement to citizens striving for success? Time will tell.