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Economic Hope, Fear Mix As Municipal Leaders Gather

DON STACOM

October 09, 2009

HARTFORD - Based on history and economic theory, Connecticut's recession has passed and wasn't very severe when it was happening, economic futurist Lowell Catlett told several hundred municipal leaders at a convention Thursday.

The real explanation for why so many residents are worried or distressed about the economy is that people have come to expect a historically high standard of living, and often balk at even minor backsliding, Catlett said.

"What is luxury to one generation becomes necessity to another," he said in his keynote address to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities' annual conference.

"The recession started in the fall of '07. By history, it's over promise," Catlett said. "No, I'm not making light of people who are out of work. But about 18 months is all you can stand of people whining and moaning."

But most of the audience has spent the last six months slashing budgets, bargaining for union concessions, cutting services and extending year-old hiring freezes, and other speakers at the convention were far more pessimistic than Catlett, a professor from New Mexico State University who consults for federal agencies as well as several major U.S. businesses.

"We're going to talk a little about how we'll get through the next 28 to 30 months," Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez said. "There are going to be more tough choices."

Catlett's optimism, humor and Lewis Black-style of delivery kept listeners entertained, but didn't seem to change anyone's mind. City managers, mayors, first selectmen and local finance directors from across the state spent the day at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford talking about strategies for what they anticipate will be at least two years or more of ferociously tough times for local governments. Taxpayers will feel the pressure because they can expect to pay more while getting fewer services, many municipal leaders said.

At a panel on combating blight, Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy said there are warning signs that bank foreclosures will rise this year as investors and low-income home buyers walk away from properties where values have dropped below the cost of the mortgage.

"This is going to be a bigger and bigger issue around the state. There's a dark cloud coming," Malloy said.

Foreclosure by out-of-state banks or absentee investors can quickly damage the surrounding neighborhood if the property isn't kept up, he said.

State Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie cautioned communities against expecting extensive new highway initiatives because federal and state funds are being stretched thin. That means maintenance of existing roads and bridges will suffer until new revenues are developed.

"We have a deepening hole in our preservation effort," he said. "The picture is not very pretty. That's the reality."

But there was a more exuberant message from Catlett. Connecticut's gross domestic product actually grew last year, and the percentage of residents who can afford to own a home remains significantly higher than 30 years ago, he said.

Catlett blamed some of the pessimism on fellow economists.

"If there's a dog and an economist at your back door and you let them in, how do you tell them apart?" he asked. "The dog quits whining."

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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