As we near the end of my first year in office, I feel it is an appropriate time to update our citizens on the state of our city.
After serving as a city councilman in Bridgeport for 20 years, I thought it was time to step aside and give other people an opportunity to serve. At that time, the city was operating under a balanced budget and had a healthy reserve fund. Our physical plant was in very good shape, and there was no deferred maintenance in our equipment fleet. After a five-year absence, I felt the need to once again become involved in city government.
Several reasons factored into my decision to run for mayor. First and foremost, Bridgeport is my home and the place I chose to raise my family. I care a great deal for the citizens of this community, many of who are family or lifelong friends.
Also, it was apparent even to someone on the outside, our town was going through some pretty drastic changes.
After being elected mayor, I discovered the city no longer had any cash in reserve and had not operated under a balanced budget since 2005 despite record sales tax revenues.
The city now owned more property, incurred debt for the hospital and had taken responsibility for the maintenance of a good portion of Halsell Street from the state.
The electric department had not been upgraded and was hemorrhaging cash.
The city had in excess of 100 employees, and many of the employees had city credit cards.
There were mistakes in the billing department for utilities and no attempts to correct those mistakes or collect money rightfully owed to the city.
Since becoming mayor, the No. 1 question from citizens pertains to the hospital. The city pledged $3 million to guarantee operating funds for the hospital. Without this guarantee, the construction of the hospital would not have been possible.
No one believed these funds would be needed, but the downturn in the local economy coincided with the hospital’s opening and those funds were required very early on.
The city is currently making interest payments of approximately $13,000 per month. This note matures in February 2012, and the city is in the process of negotiating more favorable terms. While the city cannot afford this expense, it is a legal obligation.
Next on the list of concerns is the electric department. Our system is in need of repairs and upgrades, but there has been no money budgeted for improvements to the system for several years.
The electric department has lost money for the last five years and is on pace to lose close to $1 million this year.
I believe it is in the best interest of Bridgeport to get out of the electricity business, but our options are limited.
The current contract with the wholesale supplier includes a penalty if the city relinquishes rights to the electrical service.
As I understand it, the penalty for breaking the contract is in excess of $3 million. Even if the city had the funds to opt out of its contract, most prospective buyers would be subject to competition and are unwilling to assume the capital improvements required in our system.
In addition to the credit card issue referenced earlier, many employees had cell phones supplied or reimbursed by the city. I have also found several employees receive a gas allowance for commuting to and from work.
With one exception, these employees do not live within the city or even the Bridgeport school district. It seems to me, we are using tax dollars to compensate someone for not living in the community where they work.
I have also discovered a few inappropriate practices within the city. One example is the city set utility poles and supplied lighting for a volleyball court on private property at no charge and no meter to charge for the lighting.
Another concern pertains to the codes and ordinances. All cities need codes and ordinances but should not become so onerous they infringe on personal property rights or hinder development.
Codes and ordinances should be common sense and protect you, as well as your neighbors.
Upon being elected mayor, I knew I faced many difficult challenges but believed I was up to the task.
Since that time, I have been met with opposition at every turn. Even though the citizens of Bridgeport voted against the city manager form of government, past councils have abdicated most of the mayor’s authority to the city administrator, making that position a de facto city manager.
According to the city’s legal counsel, Bridgeport is effectively operating as a city manager form of government. While this transfer of authority may be legal, it certainly opposes the will of the citizens as expressed at the ballot box.
During the most recent election for a city manager form of government, citizens expressed concern that a city manager is here today and gone tomorrow and not accountable to the community.
All of your concerns have come true.
I want the citizens of Bridgeport to be informed and have confidence in your city government. It is your right to know how and where your tax dollars are spent.
I am willing to answer any question from any citizen to ensure your city government is transparent at all times.
McComis is mayor of Bridgeport.