ZELINSKY: The great big sinkhole

On Point

You have to give Mayor John DeStefano credit for consistency. Without fail, he sticks to three basic principles of economic success: Tax, spend and tax again.

This past week, a parade of poor decisions emanated from City Hall. In his State of the City Address last Tuesday, DeStefano crooned that New Haven’s Grand List — a measure of taxable property — increased by $861 million. Higher valued property means more tax revenue, an additional $6 million per year by the mayor’s estimate.

The mayor injected a not so subtle subtext into the State of the City: With this fiscal windfall, he can further combat New Haven’s social ills, be they high unemployment or failing public schools.

It’s time we said enough. Any more money for DeStefano’s administration throws good cash after the bad. Last year, the city spent close to $224 million from its taxpayers (not to mention $200 million in grants from the state — again, the taxpayer’s dollars). Much of that paid for shoddy school reform and bloated pension obligations. And the mayor plans on spending close to $30 million more in 2012. On the same day as his address, the mayor’s office held a meeting to promote DeStefano’s latest brainchild: a downtown streetcar, projected to cost a whopping $20-$30 million. Yup, that’s right. A streetcar. On fixed tracks. With trolleys — buses apparently don’t cut it for New Haven commuters. Now you see why DeStefano likes that rise in revenue.

The mayor claims the trolley will pay for itself. If that happens, call the Guinness Book of World Records. We would have to document the first profitable public transport system in history. Until then, we can confidently say that the mayor is planning another Elm City sinkhole.

DeStefano sees businesses as a honey pot for funding ineffective projects. And his resulting tax policies send a clear message to entrepreneurs: Stay out of New Haven. Sadly, the mayor’s brand of economic illiteracy repels jobs at the very time his constituents need them most.

But this tax-more think-less trend is nothing new for the city. In the past, the mayor has proposed a local option sales tax, a scheme that would have forced retailers out of town. And the Board of Aldermen continues to extort Yale with the threat of opening High and Wall Street to cars if the University doesn’t fork over more money.

Instead of spending with abandon, we need to find prudent ways to cut back on our recklessly rising budget and taxes. An easy first step would be dismantling Occupy New Haven — few to no people actually live there, but the cost of policing the Green daily drains the city’s resources. DeStefano needs to emulate many liberal mayors around the country in taking down the costly tents.

And in the long run, he must seriously grapple with the challenges to New Haven’s fiscal solvency. Paying lip service to benefit reform is not enough — the city faces a mountain of pension debt that only increases with time.

Admittedly, DeStefano faces intractable political partners at the local and state levels. The union-backed Board of Aldermen all but refuses to act maturely when it comes to the budget. And Gov. Dannel Malloy continues to promote policies that stifle job growth throughout Connecticut. But the mayor’s poor colleagues are no excuse for his own bad decisions, the great trolley boondoggle chief among them.

DeStefano should ask himself how he wants history to remember his 20 year mayoralty. Does he want to be lauded for taking gutsy steps to save his city? Or will his legacy be one of inept fiscal management? Right now, my bet is on the latter.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu.

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