Mezzo addresses business community

[local /wp-content/uploads/2010/09/MEZZO-SPEECH-FINAL-2.flv]

This video was edited for length.

NAUGATUCK — These are tough times for businesses, and Naugatuck’s government sympathizes with their collective plight.

That was one message Mayor Robert Mezzo delivered in a speech to local business leaders last week. Mezzo’s comments, which lasted about a half-hour, centered about economic development and his administration’s efforts to streamline borough government and make it run “more like a business.”

Mezzo spoke at the annual, Naugatuck Chamber-sponsored Mayoral Luncheon at Santos Restaurant on Church Street last Thursday. About 40 local business leaders attended the event.

Mezzo offered an update on the $710 million, mixed-use, energy independent Renaissance Place downtown development project, the realization of which has long been stymied by a reluctant private investment market and thus-far inadequate public infrastructure funding from state and federal sources.

Though St. Mary’s Health System has committed to building a 45,000 to 50,000-square-foot medical facility at Parcel C, the tract undergoing remediation at the corner of Maple and Water Streets, the borough must, under the development agreement with Fairfield-based Conroy Development, first provide public infrastructure support in the form of a parking garage.

“Before we can get the private development, we need to fulfill our obligations and secure funding for that support structure,” Mezzo said. “You know, DECD [the state’s economic development agency] doesn’t like parking garages, DOT [the state’s transportation department] doesn’t like parking garages, the federal government doesn’t like parking garages, but the reality is, for Naugatuck, it’s not the garage. It’s the three-to-one, four-to-one private-dollar investment ratio that’s important.”

The Saint Mary’s structure, Mezzo added, would yield tax revenue not just from the real property that would be erected there, but on a significant amount of taxable personal property in the form of high-value medical equipment housed there.

Mezzo outlined a best-case scenario in which design work on the facility would begin in the fall and construction would begin in the spring, at the “start of the next construction cycle.

“We have a schedule now—an ambitious schedule, but a schedule nonetheless—to begin the project,” he said.

Mezzo also reiterated his hopes that a private development would one day inhabit the train station building on Water Street, and that the Naugatuck Historical Society and Naugatuck Economic Development Corporation could move their offices from that structure to Building 25 on Parcel C.

Mezzo said he understood how resident could be discouraged after years or development talks but no new construction.

“It’s exciting, but it’s precarious as well,” he said. “The further you get away from the [2007] referendum—when this community was excited and passionate and hopeful—the more doubt and skepticism creep in.”

But he called Renaissance Place the “best opportunity” for economic growth in the borough, citing uncoordinated sprawl and the development big-box chain stores as the alternatives.

“It would be easy to say, ‘We’re not good enough for [Renaissance Place],’ but I’m not willing to do that,” he said. “When the economy does break and when investors are willing to invest again, we’re ready.”

Mezzo skimmed over developments in other areas, indicating strength in the Bridge Street area, where several new stores have spring up; the industrial park, which he said generates almost $2 million annually in tax revenue; and even on Rubber Avenue, where he said the new community theater company could draw more visitors—and thus more business—to distressed stores and restaurants in the area.

Mezzo also addressed the vacant building on New Haven Road that formerly housed the Peter Paul candy company.

“The most frequent question I get in terms of non-Renaissance Place topics is, ‘What are you doing with Peter Paul?’” Mezzo said. “The reality is the government can’t do anything with Peter Paul. The property is owned privately by the Hershey Company. The government would certainly do anything that’s necessary to encourage development, but the reality is that it needs action by the private sector in terms of a buyer that’s willing to meet the price that Hershey is willing to accept. … People aren’t doing the commercial developments to the degree they were a few years ago. That will come back, and I think Hershey will eventually be a part of that.”

A government progress report

The mayor, a first-term Democrat, also outlined the steps his administration has taken to streamline government operations since he was elected in May 2009.

“In these economic times it’s important for you to know that your government is trying to act responsible as well,” Mezzo said. “Every day you go into your business and you see the economic indicators, which are difficult; you know the choices that you have to make in terms of goals, the choices you have to make in terms of your employees that are not always pleasant, and as a taxpayer, as a commercial taxpayers, it’s important to know that the government is trying to live within its means and do the things that you do in your own businesses.”

The restructuring of the borough’s Department of Public Works late last year, Mezzo said, went a long way in improving effectiveness and promoting fiscal efficiency.

“In the past we’ve had separate departments for park, for street, for golf course, for building, for land use, for engineering, and they all operated with varying degrees of efficiency,” he said. “One of the first things that we did when our administration came in was put a public works umbrella around that department.”

Now the department has one director, former borough engineer Jim Stewart, and street and park workers now perform some of the same tasks depending on seasonal needs.

Additionally, Mezzo said, his administration negotiated an agreement with the labor union upending a former requirement that two employees ride in snow-plow trucks at all times. Now that decision is made at the discretion of a manager depending on the weather conditions and safety considerations.

The borough is also slated to switch to an automated waste and recycling collection system, which Mezzo said will dramatically reduce personnel cost and worker’s compensation claims.

But it is a negotiated agreement to modify many new borough employees’ pension plans that Mezzo remembers with the most pride, though he admitted Naugatuck might not reap the benefits of the change for several years to come.

“One of the things I’m most proud of …is that four of our seven municipal bargaining units have now changed so that any employee coming into those bargaining units goes into a defined-contribution pension plan, much like the 401(k)s that you have for your employees in the private sector,” he said. “Most of our pensions, previously, were based on years of service, percentage of three best years—all kinds of formulas that allowed people to retire at rates sometimes in excess of what their salaries were.”

Mezzo added he “has no problem” paying public employees a good wage and solid benefits, but “we don’t have the resources. The math doesn’t add up to continue the level of benefits that we have provided,” he said.

The borough has reached a tentative agreement with the fifth union and is working on the sixth, he said.

Other developments Mezzo said he can claim a hand in include a new hiring policy that better utilizes the borough’s human resources professionals; a “tightened-up” bidding procedure, including giving contractors the option to receive all requests for bids via e-mail as they arise; funding a new content management system for the borough’s website, which he said will make it more accessible and user-friendly; and a new drug-testing policy at the fire department.

Mezzo also acknowledged the “very, very rocky year” the school board had endured as its one-time fiscal mismanagement was laid bare and residents decried deep cuts to school personnel and looming programmatic cuts. He credited Wayne McAllister, the borough controller and acting school board business manager, for keeping the school system’s finances in check when he took the reins at Tuttle House; he also credited board members themselves for making “painful” choices.

“These are tough times,” Mezzo said in closing. “You know it; you deal with it every day. We know it as a government. It doesn’t give me an excuse not to plan. It doesn’t give me an excuse not to improve operations. It doesn’t give me an excuse to not try to envision what this community can be in another couple of years.”