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City Plays Favorites

Internal e-mails released under a Freedom of Information request

By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

January 17, 2008

When a consultant representing big business interests in Hartford asked the city last February for property tax data, he got it virtually overnight.

When an attorney representing small business made the same request in June, he got a runaround that lasted six months, and only ended after the Freedom of Information Commission got involved.

The city's double standard is plainly evident in internal e-mails the Advocate recently acquired, but first, a little background: The 2006 revaluation resulted in huge tax increases for small business, and a tax cut for big business. Homeowners were protected with small increases. Small business felt abused, and hired attorney Greg Piecuch of O'Connell, Flaherty & Attmore to represent them.

On June 4, Piecuch sent an e-mail to City Assessor Larry LaBarbera asking for property tax data on electronic spreadsheets so the alliance could analyze it.

Piecuch heard the next day from John Rose, the city's corporation counsel, telling him his e-mail was being treated as a Freedom of Information Act request.

"I will coordinate the request and the collection of any relevant, disclosable material," wrote Rose in his e-mail. "We will charge at the prescribed, per page rate for copies of the paperwork."

As the Advocate reported on Dec. 28, Piecuch didn't get his spreadsheets until Dec. 11, more than six months after his request, and after the Freedom of Information Commission had launched an investigation.

The city ended up agreeing it had violated the Freedom of Information Act, and pledged to cooperate with the Small Business Alliance in the future in return for the alliance dropping its complaint to the commission.

"The irony is LaBarbera admitted it took him an hour and a half to put the data together," said Piecuch.

The alliance was charged $75 for the spreadsheets, based on the cost of that hour and a half of time.

Compare that to the experience of John McDermott, a consultant for Hartford's corporate community, who sent an e-mail to LaBarbera on Thursday, Feb. 1, at 8:11 p.m., asking, "Now that your Grand List is signed, could you send me your latest spreadsheet with the estimated tax rate calculations? I owe a report to the business community group."

At 8:51 p.m., 40 minutes later, LaBarbera sent his reply: "I will send it on Monday. I am taking a vacation day!!!"

Two business days later, McDermott had his spreadsheets, no charge, with this helpful note from LaBarbera: "John here is the final spreadsheet. If you change the year in cell G2, all of the numbers will change for the year, 2007, 2008 etc."

Without addressing the e-mails specifically, Sarah Barr, spokeswoman for Mayor Eddie Perez said the city values big and small business equally.

"They all create jobs," she said.

Small business owners weren't the only ones given the back of the city's hand. The press fared poorly as well.

Columnist Mike McGarry of the Hartford News was the first journalist in town to begin writing about the revaluation and its effect on small business.

On April 19, City Councilman James Boucher e-mailed Hartford Chief Operating Officer Lee Erdmann, quoting a recent column by McGarry that "suggests that small business taxes are due to double."

"It is my understanding from everything that I have read from the tax assessor and/other information that this is far from the reality," wrote Boucher. "I want to respond to Mike with the correct information, but thought I would request this through the City before I responded."

Erdmann asks LaBarbera to look into it. The next day, LaBarbera sends a spreadsheet to Erdmann, copying Mayor Eddie Perez and his Chief of Staff Matt Hennessey, showing that the increase in taxes for a specific property McGarry was citing, Bonetti Florist, "is not the 'double' that Mr. McGarry has been quoting."

Indeed, LaBarbera's analysis showed the tax increase for Bonetti was a mere 82 percent, which turned out to be 92 percent once the tax bills were actually determined.

Such good news nothwithstanding, Chief of Staff Hennessey sent this e-mail to LaBarbera the following day: "Dont send the spreadsheet to McGarry."

"I didn't send him anything," replied LaBarbera, two minutes later. "I only quoted assessment and tax information over the phone."

Piecuch said last week in spite of his ultimate victory, he's still coming to terms with what happened concerning the property tax data.

"I don't begrudge big business for hiring [McDermott] but if what's good for the goose is good for the gander why is city hall playing politics with who they release the data to?" asked Piecuch. "And why subject one group to the rigors of the FOI Act and a different business group gets a pass on that?"

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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