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Upgrade Sought In City Services

Downtown Property Owners Putting Emphasis On Safety And Cleanliness

February 17, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

Some downtown Hartford property owners who are considering paying more for enhanced safety and sanitation services want the city to do a better job of sweeping streets, emptying litter bins and patrolling with police as part of the deal.

Discussions among property owners and civic organizations on establishing what is called a "special services district" for the downtown business area gained momentum last spring and are continuing. Advocates of the district are hoping to have one in place by July 1, officials said.

The goal is simple: Property owners would tax themselves and pay more money for more enhanced services. Many cities use such districts to improve services in downtown areas.

But as a sign of the city's commitment to the neighborhood, some of the property owners are seeking greater city participation.

"A number of the folks on the business side have indicated that, if we as property owners in the downtown area are going to tax ourselves to provide better services, we'd like to see the city raise the bar in terms of the services it provides," said Lee C. Erdmann, the city's chief operating officer.

So far, the city is cool to the idea.

Although Mayor Eddie A. Perez supports the concept of a special services district, he's less enthusiastic about having the city committing resources to one neighborhood in return for the district's increased services.

"Is there a quid pro quo?" asked Matt Hennessy, Perez's chief of staff. "The answer is no, because the whole purpose of the [district] is to enhance services and have the members take on the responsibility."

Instead, Hennessy said, the city would pledge to not decrease services to the neighborhood should the district provide some of its own, and it would also consider improving its current services in the broader context of a citywide effort to improve safety, cleanliness and more.

"As mayor of the whole city, he has to balance the significant needs in all of our neighborhoods," Hennessy said.

R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel, head of the MetroHartford Alliance, acknowledged that some of the larger property owners are looking for an incremental increase in city services in exchange for their decision to tax themselves as part of the special services district.

"I don't think there's a single urban area in the country ... where all property owners feel they're getting the bang for their buck," Griebel said. "I'm not even sure that most suburbanites feel that.

"The question is whether or not you can get to a point where everybody feels there's a good exchange," Griebel said.

Backers of the district must get the nod of the city council to hold a referendum of the district's property owners. In order to pass, that referendum must get two majorities: a majority of property owners must vote in favor of the plan, and a majority of the owners who own half of the property value in the district must vote in favor as well.

The annual operating budget for the downtown district could be between $1 million and $1.5 million, officials have said. The district has an assessed value of roughly $560 million.

To date, the discussion among property owners has been centered around a 1 mill increase, Griebel said, adding that no decisions have been made.

When discussions started a year or so ago, the odds were 20 to 80 against the district, Griebel said. "Now we're flirting with 50/50," he said. The three priorities would be enhanced security, both real and perceived; cleanliness; and the promotion of downtown activities, he said.

Some property owners like the idea.

The district "would create a partnership between the downtown stakeholders and the city," said Chuck Coursey, a spokesman for Northland Investment Corp., downtown's largest property owner. "It would improve the pedestrian experience, cleanliness and safety of the urban core."

"Northland, as the largest private property owner, is more than willing to participate," he said.

Not everyone is as enthusiastic.

"What's good for downtown is good for everybody," said William H. Fenn, vice president of asset management at the New Boston Fund, which is lukewarm about the district.

"The taxes in Hartford are already exorbitant. While we all want better things for Hartford, to continue with an additional tax above the already high mill rate plus the 15 percent surcharge to cover for the shortfall in the residential tax - it's difficult for landlords to continue," he said. "[Especially] with such high operation costs in a market that hasn't seen rent escalation and has seen continued escalation of operating expenses."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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