March 13, 2007
By DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writer
Faced with the staunchest competition for his job since he was first elected, Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez Monday stressed his accomplishments and vision for the future in his state of the city speech.
Speaking in the city council's chambers before a standing-room-only crowd, the mayor cast himself as a statesman above politics and focused on three main issues - public safety, education and neighborhood revitalization.
But Perez also looked back over his achievements, saying that despite what skeptics said, the city has become a safer, more vibrant place to live under his leadership.
"Together, we proved the doubters wrong," Perez said.
Using a catchphrase he repeated throughout the speech - "Si, se puede," which means "Yes, we can" in English - Perez said Hartford could still accomplish a lot more.
He floated new initiatives, announcing plans to put 80 more police officers on the city's streets, to establish local laws requiring that lost or stolen guns be reported to the police and to spend $50 million to remove blighted buildings in some of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods in favor of viable housing.
The mayor also focused on education and programs for the city's youth, saying he planned to dedicate $1.8 million to after-school programs and to create jobs for children. He also said he would push forward with spending $232 million to build six new schools.
Perez also talked of his successes over the last year, saying that crime is down 5 percent overall.
"We had almost 600 fewer serious crimes committed in the city of Hartford last year than in 2005," Perez said. "In fact, last year was one of the safest years in Hartford in 25 years."
Declines were seen in five of the seven major crime categories since last year, according to statistics from the city's police department. While murder, rape, auto theft, larceny and burglary declined, there was an increase in aggravated assaults, robberies and the number of shooting incidents and shooting victims.
To further combat crime, Perez wants to reach a goal of 500 uniformed officers by funding 80 new positions in the police force in his budget proposal for the next fiscal year. He wants more officers walking beats, riding bicycles on neighborhood streets and riding horseback, which means bringing back the city's horse division. He also expects to break ground on a new public safety complex this spring.
Perez touted his plan to take guns off the city streets. He will introduce a city ordinance that would require residents to report lost or stolen guns to the police within 72 hours, giving the city the power to sue those who do not comply with the law.
He also promoted the new Hartford Neighborhood Development Fund to build moderate and affordable housing in areas where blighted buildings persist. The mayor wants to commit $50 million in city money for the cause and try to get at least another $100 million in private investments.
He also called for creation of a citizens' task force to review the new strong-mayor charter. Perez's critics have said that his aggressive consolidation and use of power that came with the city's shift to a strong-mayor system in 2003 has left them disenchanted.
The task force, to be established this year, would review the charter change and its impacts on the functioning of city government. After the election, the task force would make a recommendation to the mayor and city council about whether a new charter revision commission should be created, Perez said.
Since Perez has been mayor, the city has spent more than $360 million to build seven new schools.
Despite widely publicized departures of businesses from Hartford's downtown, the mayor said the city has seen many employers commit to staying here or bring new jobs to Hartford -about 5,000 over the next three years. Unemployment in Hartford has declined for the past four years, he said.
The city has seen a housing boom, with thousands of new units built in the city, ranging from affordable homes to luxury condos downtown. Citizens can connect wirelessly to the Internet and dial 311 for a new information center that connects them to the city services they need.
During the speech, Perez called on people in the crowd who exemplified the work he was highlighting to stand - children wearing school uniforms and the private donors who supplied them, a firefighter who bought a house with the city's help, a satisfied user of his 311 call center and the city's police chief, Daryl Roberts, who grew up in Hartford.
While some citizens attended the speech, a large number were connected to city hall or Hartford politics in some way. Many were city employees or department heads.
When Perez finished his speech, one of those employees - the city's Planning Director Roger O'Brien - started a chant of "Four More Years! Four More Years!"
Perez's speech could set part of the agenda for a mayoral election that is already hot and expected to be a scorched-earth affair, political insiders said Monday. The mayor is seen as more vulnerable than he's been since his first election in 2001 and as a result faces a capable field of challengers in 2007.
Political insiders said Monday that Perez's state of the city speech was predominantly watched by the politically knowledgeable - a group of people who will be harder to win over if they've already made up their minds. Only action, not words, will shift that group, they said.
They say the mayor's tough style has alienated the governor and other state officials, all of whom are needed as supporters for Hartford to succeed.
Because of his governing style, and because he is seen as having shut himself off from those who disagree with him, Perez is seen as politically exposed, they said.
But his address Monday was not directed at his critics, he said after the speech, rather about his vision and the city's well-being.
"I think we have demonstrated that this city is safer, better financially and better respected," he said.
"For the short amount of time we have been here, we have made some progress. What I think people will recognize is that Hartford is on the move in the right direction, and I think that is what residents are going to see. ... The state of the city is strong and getting stronger every day, and the voters will have their say in November."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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