It is now official. The swearing in of Meriden’s newly re-elected Mayor Kevin Scarpati and the slate of council and board of education members took place on December 4 in the auditorium of newly renovated Platt High School.
The combined chorus of the Maloney High School Allegrettos and the Platt High School Pentangles sang the national anthem commencing the ceremonies with retiring Judge of Probate, the Honorable Brian T. Mahon, swearing in the officials.
Democrats now enjoy an 8-4 majority on the city council by virtue of Democrat Bruce Fontanella besting Len Rich (who received the lowest vote count among the at-large candidates). Outgoing city councilor Rich, of We the People, was given a plaque and parting remarks by his fellow Republican/We the People colleagues. They stated that Len “always said what he meant and meant what he said.” (I would add, in my opinion, that Rich’s behavior often eroded the decorum of council meetings.)
Other noteworthy council leadership changes include councilor David Lowell, elected to be the new Democratic Majority Leader, replacing Brian Daniels, who will chair the Finance Committee which shapes the annual city budget.
Councilor Michael Cardona continues as deputy mayor and will also chair the Public Safety Committee, replacing Larue Graham, who will take over as Human Services Committee chair. Bob Williams, former chairman, moves to vice chairman of the Human Services Committee. Councilor Cathy Battista retains chairmanship of the Parks and Recreation Committee and also serves as Deputy Majority Leader. Councilor Castro moved up to a deputy majority position. Majority Leader David Lowell will also continue as chairman of the Economic Development Committee.
Major challenges lie ahead, of which the first and foremost I believe is to ensure completion of all the construction projects and the timely filling of the spaces with residents and businesses. Developers are anticipating the opening of the commuter line in 2018 as they assess the businesses that have inquired about leasing.
Slowly, but surely, we are starting to see the beginning of what promises to be a significant resurgence in our downtown area. Market rate rental units have already surpassed expectations in the first completed building at 24 Colony St. We also know there is a pent-up demand for housing across all income levels, and Meriden will become more attractive to newcomers as the pieces of the downtown puzzle come together.
Another emerging issue is the uneven performance of the new city manager, Guy Scaife.
Scaife scored some early points for his handling of the touchy Meriden Humane Society long-standing problem by coaxing a lease agreement that was favorable to the city and was designed to prevent future problems. He also took the initiative to advance IT - phone and computer systems upgrades, which he stated will save money in the long run.
But Scaife has managed to run afoul of city bid and hiring procedures and alienated members of the city council for his heavy-handed approach to supervising employees. This prompted several staff resignations and generated unhappiness among some senior ranking employees. Scaife also has had public fights with the Legal Department, Finance Department, Purchasing Office and the Office of Economic Development. The FBI has taken notice of some of these actions and is investigating. (It should be noted that by city charter, the city manager works for the council, is the only employee of the council, and serves at-will — meaning subject to dismissal at any time. Keep a close eye on this situation going forward.)
And, finally, the annual city budget and property taxes will be more challenging than ever as Connecticut continues to go deeper into the red and passes the pain on to the cities and towns.
Meriden has already seen significant cuts from the state after the city budget was adopted, prompting an upcoming special session to address the latest bad fiscal news. Fortunately, the city had built up a sizeable rainy-day fund due to the prudence of the former city manager and councils for use, if necessary. But undoubtedly there will be more fiscal shoes to drop as the state battles continued loss of revenue.
So, all in all, as Meriden ushers in 2018, there will be some interesting challenges in the new term for Mayor Scarpati and the city council. They will need to work courageously, cooperatively and creatively to navigate turbulent waters ahead.
Michael S. Rohde is a former mayor and city councilor of Meriden.