Slow Motion Train Wreck

Like most things, my words can’t do actual events justice. I’ve now seen a number of things at council I’m thankful I didn’t miss. This is a brief account of the most recent one.

The city Housing Coordinator Andre Caron is a “rock star.” He has been instrumental in removing dilapidated properties from Berlin streets, he has been aggressive in going after federal and state funds, and partnered with Joe Martin, the code enforcement officer, he has been making noticeable changes throughout the city. Phenomenal changes, in fact, the kind of changes Berlin has to increase exponentially to build a viable future.

At the council meeting on Monday Councilor Michael Rozak brought out a list of properties TKB Properties, the city’s private partner in the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, bought on the East Side since the program began. He had a number of concerns: about the targeted approach of the company, about the properties they were buying, and about the mortgage amounts. I had put my notebook away because it was the end of the night and the next item was adjournment, so I missed direct quotes of his comments, but suffice to say he didn’t sound impressed with the NSP. He said TKB seemed like it had something else going on here, beyond just rehabilitating properties.

It was a direct attack on the NSP, with a spreadsheet and allegations of cooking books. Mr. Caron’s face got pretty red as Councilor Rozak spoke, and it was clear he didn’t like what he was hearing.

And then Councilor Remillard stepped in.

Councilor Remillard is what I would call the swing-vote on the council. She does not seem to be standing on one side of the fence or the other on most issues: she was the only councilor who voted on the city seal willing to revisit the discussion, and she doesn’t seem vehemently in favor of Laidlaw or opposed. She is as close to a middle ground member as the council has, I suppose, and I’ve become accustomed to her rather accommodating manner.

But on Monday she acted with passion, something I don’t think I’ve ever seen her do. She  jumped to Mr. Caron’s defense, listing off the benefits of the work he has done and what this project will do for the city. The renovated buildings will bring up the values of every property in the neighborhood, she said, and no one else would touch these eyesores without federal assistance. The idea that this is anything but a positive is wrong, she said, and any moves that could possibly derail the effort would be against the city’s interest. She championed his efforts for five minutes, and she scolded Councilor Rozak for bringing these issues up in such a way that could possibly scare the public. It seemed he found the issue she is passionate about.

Mr. Caron said he was supposed to sign the paperwork for the program tomorrow, but after comments from the mayor and several councilors he was concerned the program didn’t have their support.

I sat at the press table with the reporter for the daily paper and we kept looking at each other. I’ve been reporting on this program for a year, and she’s been doing it for even longer. This program is a godsend for Berlin, and if the city could get four more programs like it it wouldn’t be too much.

The city received $4.3 million, mostly to rehabilitate properties no one wants. The renovations will occur in targeted areas, and they will take place through a public/private partnership with TKB Properties. Eventually these properties will go back on the tax roles, somewhere most of them haven’t been for years. I’ve been writing and writing about this, and after every story I am blown away by how much Mr. Caron has been able to leverage for the city.

Mr. Caron was visibly agitated as he responded to the pointed questions, but luckily there were more voices in support of his efforts than in opposition. The mayor, Councilor Rozak and Councilor Ryan Landry pushed him, but Councilors Robert Danderson, David Poulin and Tom McCue sang his praises and defended the program. The rock star quote is direct from Councilor Poulin.

But it was Councilor Remillard who made the real impression. She wasn’t going to stand by to watch the council dismantle the NSP. She was ready to fight, and she stepped up the moment it looked like Mr. Caron’s years of work were about to evaporate. She made a plea that rallied the council, and though there were only three people in the audience (Mr. Caron being one of them, and Bobby Haggart being another) she turned the tide of rhetoric from opposition to support for Mr. Caron. Before she spoke it was like watching a train wreck. I could see Mr. Caron getting flustered, and it seemed his work was about to get ripped apart.

The crash, however, was narrowly averted. Thank  you, Conductor Remillard.

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5 thoughts on “Slow Motion Train Wreck

  1. Erik,

    I must admit that the discussion brought about by Councilor Rozek was concerning, but I feel it was a bit over-dramatized.

    I enjoy speaking my mind, but sometimes what I say doesn’t come across effectively to represent what I mean. I spoke in support of Andre and the program, after admitting that I initially had concerns about the program. I alleviated those concerns by LEARNING MORE about the program. (3 months ago I scheduled a meeting with Pat and Pam also joined in and explained exactly how the program works, why there are private developers involved, and what the benefits and limitations are.)

    The only point that raised a red flag to me was the fact that the mortgaged amounts are for greater than the purchase price, but after hearing Councilor Poulin’s expertise and giving it some more thought, it makes sense for a real-estate developer to maximize cash flow (especially if rates are reasonable) to use elsewhere, or pay down higher mortgages.

    Every Councilor on the council, with the exception of possibly Councilor Rozek, supports the NSF program. It is an amazing gift to Berlin and is absolutely free money. Sure I have questions, and sure I wish that the money could be used in some other ways, but I realize (after speaking with the brain trust of the program) that the federally funded project comes with federally designated strings and strict requirements. My questions to Andre regarding the $1,000,000 in demolition money were just that, questions for clarification, not criticisms of the program.

    Looking back, the real disappointment in my mind was that Councilor Rozek did not take the time to ask the brain trust exactly how the program worked prior to researching the tax cards, the sales, the abatements, the mortgages etc. and questioning the tactics of TKP prior to bringing them up in public discussion. It would have saved him alot of work. His concerns were valid, but he obviously didn’t understand the program and seemed to mistrust the participants.

    I agree with you that Councilor Remillard was passionate in her defense, and it may have been necessary, but I want to be perfectly clear on one thing:

    The NSP program was never in any danger of being side-tracked.

    It was clearly unfortunate that it came across that way.

    By the way, I also think that we have an excellent staff at City Hall and everyone of them are grossly underpaid for what they do. (having said that, its doubtful they are getting raises… 🙂

    As a Councilor it is my job to question them from time to time, usually to gather facts, but I trust each and every one of them to act in the city’s best interest.

    They’ve all earned that trust. The City of Berlin is fortunate to have such dedicated staff.

    Ryan Landry

    1. Thanks for the comment Ryan, I appreciate your perspective.
      I’ve spent a lot of time talking to Andre and others about this program, and it is one of the best things the city has going for it. Along with the federal prison, the redevelopment of Notre Dame and the biomass proposals, it is another of the key developments that are going to turn Berlin around. Frankly it was a surprise to hear any negative sentiment expressed about this program.

      I’ve watched Councilor Rozak engage with city staff and committees twice now, and he seems to relish the adversarial role. At the school board budget hearing his comments provoked strong reaction from school board vice-chair Nicole Plourde; this time it came from Councilor Remillard. If this is the approach Councilor Rozak always uses when investigating important city issues it should be interesting to watch for the next four years.

      By the end of the discussion the wind was again at Andre’s back, but for a short time, after Councilor Rozak’s questions, a comment by the mayor about the poor choice of buildings to rehab, and your comments about concerns about the company’s finances, NSP seemed like it was on shaky ground. I was glad to see things get smoothed out and to see Councilor Remillard speak so passionately for something that should be a huge benefit to the city, but to me it seemed a close call.

      Again, I appreciate your comments. I hope to engage people in the discussions taking place within their city and provide an accurate picture of events out there. Having councilors give their side of a story is probably as close as I will get to convincing people to show up at the meetings, so thank you for helping provide the next best thing.

  2. Thank god for a few smart people! Great reporting as always. Here’s what I find fascinating. We here at KDP & P have been trying for years to find nice, clean usable office space. Somewhere where the ceiling tiles don’t fall on you, and you don’t have to put an umbrella over your desk when it rains. We don’t need much, around 2000 square feet.
    When I realized I was too distracted to pay attention to our space needs, I turned the project over to my assistant Tim. That was three months ago, and we still haven’ found anything. Why can’t the NSP turn some of those properties into office space for the likes of people like me and other small business owners who don’t need retail, first floor space. All people come up with is space on Main St. Th LAST thing I want is for people to be able to wander in. And, for the city, that retail space is the city’s smile, to borrow a line from the Portsmouth Development Director. When you drive into town you want to see every tooth in that smile look pretty and interesting and open to the public. The last thing you should want is boring research firm in a downtown retail area.
    So why, if Berlin has so much extra property, is it so hard for us to find a place to put the business?

  3. I guess we are starting to see why some people in this City were quite surprised to see Councilor Rozak get elected to office. The same can be said about Bob Danderson who lied to his constituents when he said he supported “jobs, jobs, jobs” but seems to oppose the Clean Power jobs. Two of the three newly elected members of City Hall are already showing their true colors. I wonder when Grenier will trip up and make the new team 3 for 3 on questionable decisions and questionable actions and questionable motives.

    1. Berliner –

      I have sat through every council meeting and a number of other meetings with the new mayor and councilors. Their style is different than the former council, but there has been no evidence any of them have questionable motives. While from a political perspective you might disagree with their policy positions, I have yet to see any evidence any council member, old or new, is engaged in city business for personal gain. Every councilor, past or present, gives much more than they get in return for their service, and they all truly care about the future of the city. No one has found anything that brings their motives into question, so I would have to take issue with that statement. They may disagree with what is the best path forward for the city, but reasonable people disagree about that. Team Jobs cares about Berlin as much as anyone else; they just don’t see the same future for the city you do.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Erik

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