Mayor and candidate trade barbs

Scathing words between Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and Jeffrey Kerekes, his challenger in November’s mayoral election, made Wednesday the most heated day of the campaign so far.

A tax dispute between the city and Bruce Becker SOM ’85 ARC ’85, the architect and developer of 360 State St., served as a catalyst for an exchange of barbs between the candidates that quickly turned personal. By taking Becker’s side in a lawsuit that alleges the city improperly raised the tax assessment on the landmark downtown building, Kerekes showed himself to be “in the pocket” of downtown developers, DeStefano said at a campaign rally. Kerekes hit back even harder in an interview Wednesday night, accusing the mayor of imperiling the city’s long-term economic development by “changing the rules” after luring Becker to New Haven.

A report by the city’s tax assessor released this week estimates that 360 State St., which contains 500 apartment units, will eventually have to pay $5.7 million annually in taxes — four times the amount the city projected when trying to convince Becker to build it. Because of the lawsuit, that revenue is in question, and the outcome of the suit will determine the validity of one of DeStefano’s main campaign talking points: that he has presided over record growth in the city’s tax base in an economic recession. While New Haven netted $149 million in grand list growth last year, if courts agree that the city broke the law in assessing the building’s tax bill, then over two-thirds of that growth could be wiped out.

The dispute puts the future of the city’s economic development in jeopardy, Kerekes said.

“This extends far beyond Bruce Becker,” he said. “Who’s going to come and invest in our city when you feel like there’s a war on developers? If you’re a developer, and you get slammed the day you finish your project, that hurts our development.”

DeStefano denied that the assessor acted improperly, countering that Kerekes is showing himself to be an “apologist for big developers.” The suit amounts to a demand for a corporate tax break, he said, suggesting that Kerekes’ support for it stems from his desire for political favors from Becker and other developers.

“I guess [Kerekes] wants support from anyone he can get it from now,” he said.

The contest between 18-year incumbent Destefano and Kerekes, a budget watchdog from Wooster Square, is set to be the most bitterly contested election the city has seen since 2001, when the mayor defeated State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney in a primary. The mayor’s heated words Wednesday afternoon reveal a growing fear for his political life, Kerekes said.

“He’s feeling very afraid, and he should,” Kerekes said.

The occasion for DeStefano’s zingers was a rally at the East Rock School on Willow Street, where members of the Connecticut Laborers’ Local 455 congregated to support the mayor’s bid for a record 10th term in office. The rally, which drew about 80 uniformed construction workers despite heavy rain, served as a reminder that while anti-DeStefano rhetoric was pivotal in sweeping a slate of union-backed to aldermanic primary victories, the mayor’s ties to organized labor run deep. Local 455 is just one of many union endorsements DeStefano has wrapped up in recent weeks.

While DeStefano cruised to victory over Kerekes in the Democratic primary Sept. 13, his failure to obtain more than 43 percent of the vote suggested his reelection is in more doubt than it has been in a decade.

The mayor’s reelection bid has relied heavily on the contributions of city employees and contractors, Kerekes said. An examination of his campaign’s latest finance report confirms DeStefano has received $20,600 from individuals with city contracts and $5,350 from city employees. In total, those contributions represent only 6 percent of DeStefano’s campaign coffers.

In part because of his decision to opt out of the city’s public financing program, DeStefano has been able to raise $425,937, nearly 13 times the money at Kerekes’ disposal.

While Kerekes lost in the Democratic primary with less than a quarter of the vote, he will compete in the Nov. 8 general election as an independent.

Comments

  • type_b

    Oh please, the city low-balled the tax bill estimate to get Becker to build his tower, and now reneges on its estimate with the actual assessment. You have to agree with Kerekes that such practices will discourage further economic development. Plus, the tax rate is high enough already.

    DeStefano has shaken down more money from his own employees and city contracters than the Kerekes campaign has raised in total. And he’s alleging that Kerekes is seeking political favors from Becker?

  • NewHavenLiferrr

    New to the city? Please take time to see the truth. This mayor has been here to long. And a new comer may vote thinking he is some kind of wonderful because he has been in office for so long. This is not the truth. He is feared and no one would run against him. We beg you to please investigate before you vote! We can not have another 2 years of this administration.

  • NewHavenLiferrr

    he counts on you guys to vote with the status quo. Be the people we know you will become and protect the lifer’s of this city. We are being gentrified!

  • Frashizzle

    Is there a city in America that’s more anti-development than New Haven (under it’s current government). DeStefano’s regime has: close proximity to New York and other major cities, a major university in the middle of down town, and high unemployment. What has it done? It’s tried to execute a bait-and-switch against a major developer. It’s fought with the university instead of trying to work together to better utilize the thousands of new consumers it brings to the city. Finally, instead of employing more people (which is should be able to do with the rock-bottom price of labor), it’s caved to the demand of labor unions populated with workers from Hamden, Orange, and Milford.

    • dm

      eh, your commentary is nearly there. Stamford is a lot closer to New York and is thus better positioned to attract firms from New York. By all accounts, the DeStefano administration has seen the biggest improvements in the relationship between Yale and New Haven. While DeStefano was mayor, Yale began its voluntary contributions to the city. While DeStefano was mayor, Yale decided to fund New Haven Promise. The homebuyer program for Yale employees was started while DeStefano was mayor. I am not saying that DeStefano deserves all the credit for these developments, but he deserves some of it.

      Further, look to Bridgeport, Hartford, Waterbury, and New Britain, four of the other largest cities in Connecticut. Why are they struggling, too? A good explanation is the political structure of Connecticut. Small cities and towns abound, meaning a few locations become the center of all services and non-profits. Since there is no regional tax structure, New Haveners are left with incredibly high taxes. These taxes hurt business and individuals. But, these taxes are not so easily cut. Should we cut assistance to the poor? To the homeless? Should we stop recycling?

      There is one solution: regional governance and regional planning. Until you get that, it will be difficult to overcome the economic issues facing New Haven.

      • silliwin01

        I can’t imagine New Haven without a major research institution driving economic activity in the downtown area.

  • joey00

    Desteffano is a joke. he has taken money from Becker before,maybe not this campaign run ,but def.in his annual Mayor/Governor/Mayor/Governor ,take money even when there is no race.
    He’s childish,and it reflects into every Department,the worse is the police department,it shows in their inaction/statements/reactions/and crime stats..a dumbed down town votes for him.People afraid of change ,afraid of losing their jobs

  • silliwin01

    New Haven politics are capable of disillusioning even the most idealistic of young Americans.