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November 27, 2023 Opinion & Commentary

Bordonaro: Top early priorities for Hartford’s new mayor

Greg Bordonaro

The city of Hartford will have new leadership in 2024, as Mayor-elect Arunan Arulampalam prepares to take office.

Arulampalam, a Democrat, won the Nov. 7 election by a wide margin, but now faces the much more difficult task of running a city facing significant long-term challenges.

It’s a huge test for a 38-year-old political newcomer who has not previously held public office.

Arulampalam has already made some early moves by naming key leaders to his transition team, including Democratic Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, Hartford Foundation President Jay Williams and Andrea Comer, chief of staff to the state treasurer. He has also appointed 22 transition policy committee co-chairs.

While many newly elected officials come into office with grand dreams and plans, successful administrations are usually built one small victory at a time.

Here are a few key priorities Arulampalam should focus on now and during his first 100 days in office.

Staffing up

Key to Arulampalam’s success will be hiring qualified and competent staff throughout his administration, particularly in economic development roles. The private sector should have a strong voice within the Arulampalam administration.

New governors and mayors often face pressure to hire staffers who helped get them elected. That can’t be the focus, especially within a city hall that is more thinly staffed than it used to be.

During an interview with the Hartford Business Journal in August, Arulampalam pitched the idea of creating a business advocate position that reports directly to the mayor.

The advocate would be the point of entry to city hall for developers, companies seeking to expand, or startups looking to get off the ground, he said.

The idea is a good one, and creating and hiring someone for that post should be a priority within the next few weeks and months.

Regulatory reforms

Another priority is improving the regulatory environment, particularly speeding up the permitting process.

Developers and other businesses have complained about the long wait times to receive building and other permits. That’s unacceptable in a city starving for private investment and new businesses.

The Arulampalam administration should flip that notion on its head and make Hartford one of the easiest Connecticut municipalities to do business in.

On the campaign trail, Arulampalam said he’d like to hire more building inspectors and streamline the permitting process. He said he led a license streamlining effort when he was deputy commissioner of the state Department of Consumer Protection, which has the second-largest licensing and permitting portfolio within state government, behind the public health department.

Let’s hope he makes use of that experience early on and throughout his four-year term.

Economic development

The city’s future success will be driven, in part, by economic growth.

To make that happen, the city must maintain a strong partnership with the private sector, make Hartford an attractive investment option and continue to invest in workforce development.

Investment in downtown housing must continue, including conversion of more underutilized offices into apartments.

Much of that activity is driven by the Capital Region Development Authority, which provides low-interest gap financing to help get major developments off the ground.

Developer tax-break deals, while not politically popular, must remain in play, at least until the city’s tax rate can be lowered to a more reasonable level.

It would be good if the Arulampalam administration can articulate a clearer policy around what types of private investments qualify for a tax break.

That would bring more transparency to the process and potentially help businesses and developers focus their time and efforts.

Maybe greater incentives or tax breaks can be offered for investment in the city’s often-overlooked neighborhoods.

Of course, there is a fine line municipalities must walk in the incentives game.

While the city’s financial position is in much better shape than it was eight years ago, Hartford can’t afford to give away the store to lure flashy new projects.

Budget stability must be a priority as Arulampalam crafts his first spending plan in the months ahead.

The city also needs to attract new employers, targeting small to midsize companies that see value in a vibrant urban environment.

There are many other pressing issues the Arulampalam administration will confront, from gun violence to an understaffed police department.

The mayor’s job can be overwhelming.

A successful mayor must have a grand future vision that’s achieved through small, incremental victories.

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