Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Milford Mayoral Debate Fact Check

Blake (l) and Spalthoff at a pre-debate dinner on Tuesday. 
TRUTH SQUAD!

Mayor Ben Blake and Republican challenger Peter Spalthoff debated last night – though, “answered questions from the audience” is a more accurate depiction.

Many news outlets like to use Pinocchio’s nose, or, in the case of the Seattle Times, the Space Needle, to measure how truthful the candidates’ statements were. I’d like to use a less pointy metaphor. So, I’m measuring the truthfulness (or accuracy) here in distance in Connecticut from Milford. So, if one of the candidates said, “Barack Obama doesn’t have a birth certificate” they would be rated “North Canaan” because that's as far from the truth (Milford) as you can get. Get it?

The candidate: Ben Blake
The claim: “I passed two lean, bipartisan budgets.”
The verdict: West Haven. True, but additional context is necessary. The way the budget process works is the mayor – with much help from the finance director and department heads – forms a budget toward the end of the calendar year, and reveals it to the public usually in January. The Finance Committee then scrutinizes that budget and votes on it. Then, usually by May, the Board of Aldermen approves or changes it. Blake’s claim that the budget was passed in a bipartisan manner is true because ultimately it passed through two boards comprised of Republicans and Democrats. But that doesn’t mean that these boards didn’t try to change Blake’s budget. There were a variety of measures brought up by the Republicans to change Blake’s two budgets, most of which were defeated in a partisan manner.

The candidate: Spalthoff
The claim: “The new firehouse, it’s nearly a year late; now we’re using an outside attorney to sue the contractor.”
The verdict: New Haven. The new East Side Fire Station was over a year late, but there’s no indication that the city has sued anyone. The city has hired outside counsel – attorney Jeffrey Donofrio – to protect the city’s legal interests as it deals with the contractor. There was a clause in the city’s contract with the contractor that it could recoup a certain amount of money for each day that the project was late. However, the contractor has tried to recoup money from the city, too. Donofrio has declined to comment on the matter, saying that he doesn’t want to reveal the city’s legal strategy.

The candidate: Spalthoff and Blake
The claim: “If our pension system is so well funded, why did we put in $2 million this year?” (Spalthoff); “The 2 million he's referring to is our contribution to the cost of living to uniformed officers" (Blake, in rebuttal).
The verdict: Seymour. Blake is wrong about that contribution (it was $2.2 million), though he is right that the money went to the police and fire pension fund. This year, the city had to contribute $2.2 million to the pension fund because of an actuarial practice called “asset smoothing,” which allows a contributor (the city) to pay for losses in a pension over a couple of years. It’s similar to financing a large purchase by paying for it in installments. Last year, the city contributed around $320,000 to that pension fund; it jumped up to $2.2 million this year because the investment losses sustained during the recession are just now affecting the pension fund; next year, the contribution is expected to be up around $2 million. But asset smoothing isn’t really a measure of how well funded a pension fund is, it’s a measure of how risky private investments are.

The candidate: Blake
The claim: “The fund reserve is part of the budgeting process. It’s the people's money. It’s something we use almost every budget.”
The verdict: Woodmont. Blake and other mayors (in Milford and across the country) have used reserve funds to balance or offset other losses during the budgeting process. Blake did not use reserve funds in his first budget, introduced in January 2012, but did use $5 million during this year’s budget process. Former mayor James Richetelli Jr. used a $1 million draw in revealing his budget in January 2011; Richetelli used a $2 million draw in 2010. Spalthoff had insinuated earlier that Blake had used the $5 million this year so that taxes would not go up too much given that it's an election year. Blake's response to that was, "If you want to keep taxes down, you have to look at all the tools you have in order to accomplish that."

The candidate: Blake
The claim: He and other city leaders found a way to make hiring four school resource police officers “budget neutral.”
The verdict: Derby. It is true that the city created four new police officer positions this year so it could have a school resource officer program. It is also true that the police department and school district split the estimated $500,000 annual cost of the new officers by creating new revenue and shifting existing revenue. But it would be foolish to assert that those four positions will always be budget neutral. Generally, personnel costs drive the largest share of annual budget increases, so it’s very likely that the cost of these positions will increase in the future.

The candidate: Spalthoff and Blake
The claim: “From 1990 to 2018, our school population is going to be down 22 percent” (Spalthoff). “The school population is cyclical” (Blake).
The verdict: East Haven. The school population in 1990 was 7,883, and a task force studying enrollment projects it will be at 5,605 by the 2018-2019 school year. That's a 29 percent decline. Enrollment in Milford declined about 15 percent between 1990 and 2012, according to figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics. The state predicts that Milford’s overall population will only to increase by about 1,500 by 2040, making it unlikely that the school district population will rebound to its peak (7,569 in 2005-06). Right now, the school district is undergoing a massive study of its population and assets – the Long Range Planning Committee – to figure out how to deal with a declining school population. Demographic studies do predict that the district population loss will bottom out in about a decade at around 5,400. 

The candidate: Blake and Spalthoff
The claim: “In terms of city's overall population, we're growing. You saw that from the last Census. We’re growing. We have been growing” (Blake). “We're losing population” (Spalthoff).
The verdict: Bethany. Milford’s population is not declining, but it’s also not really growing. The 2000 Census put the population at 50,294, the 2010 Census put it at 51,227, and a 2012 projection put it at around 51,488. State studies say that Milford’s population will only reach around 54,300 by 2040. All data suggests that Milford’s population is stagnant, neither technically growing nor shrinking. A note: When making his statement, Spalthoff referenced a study by the United Way, not the Census.

The candidate: Spalthoff
The claim: “Taxes are going to go up; it's very tough to be living in a city like this and have the services we do and not have taxes go up.”
The verdict: Shelton. Spalthoff can’t really say that taxes are going to go up or down because that’s a function of how much it’s going to cost to run the city over how large the tax base is, figures that are largely the domain of the city Finance Department. Historically, the tax rate has gone up and down in Milford. The rate was 28.23 in fiscal year 2009; 27.50 in 2010; 26.40 in 2011; 28.89 in 2012; 25.60 in 2013; and 26.28 in 2014(the current tax rate adopted by the Board of Aldermen in May).  Taxes have gone up and down, and likely will continue to fluctuate in the future. 

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