Recent editorials of regional and national interest from New England’s newspapers:
More cash for money pit
Come January, work will begin on the latest upgrade to Hartford’s XL Center, formerly known as the Hartford Civic Center. The project is expected to result in “an expanded concourse, bunker suites and a club area in a scaled-back renovation of the lower portion of the aging arena,” The Hartford Courant reported Dec. 14. Connecticut taxpayers will foot the approximately $100 million bill.
This is not the first time Connecticut residents and business people have poured a lot of money into the XL Center, which opened in 1975. Past “investments” did not pay off for the state. Taxpayers deserve to know why this dollar dump will be different.
The XL Center is owned by the city of Hartford and managed by the state’s Capital Region Development Authority. It occupies four blocks in downtown Hartford. In recent decades, the arena has hosted the American Hockey League’s Hartford Wolf Pack, University of Connecticut athletic events, concerts and conventions, among others. The XL Center has been something of a pet project for state politicians. For instance, Connecticut government spent $40 million on the arena between 2014 and 2017, the (Manchester) Journal Inquirer reported in 2017.
It is hard to see what Connecticut taxpayers have gotten for this. As the Courant story noted, events rarely fill the XL Center’s 16,000 seats; approximately 12,000 seats typically are occupied. Reporter Kenneth R. Gosselin cited a 2018 concert by rock star Elton John – who has performed at the arena somewhat frequently since 1980 – as an example of a relatively rare “big” event. Indeed, it had been widely reported in the past that the XL Center had lost concert business to area casinos. Multiple media reports have indicated the XL Center loses approximately $2 million each year, and these losses are covered by taxpayers.
Funding for the soon-to-begin renovations was approved in 2017 and 2020, during the administrations of Govs. Dannel P. Malloy and Ned Lamont, according to Mr. Gosselin. “State officials hope the renovation will increase revenue with more premium seating and amenities; push the venue to make a profit, which it traditionally has not done; and reduce expenses, eliminating costly repairs to outdated equipment for which parts are difficult to find,” he reported. When interviewed by Mr. Gosselin, Michael W. Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, portrayed the planned upgrades – especially the bunker suites, which are on-the-floor versions of the iconic skyboxes – as in line with the realities of the XL Center and arenas in general.
Considering Connecticut has seen versions of this movie for some time, and they didn’t end well, it is incumbent upon everyone from Capitol policymakers to Mr. Freimuth to offer coherent explanations of why the latest investment will pay dividends. They also should disclose what will happen if things do not work as planned. While $2 million a year may seem like a relatively small amount of money, it looms large when one considers it represents the XL Center loss that taxpayers have to cover each year.
COVID denial spreads like a virus
Portland Press Herald
COVID denialism has been constant over the last nine months and shows no sign of losing traction, no matter what happens in the real world.
A common argument you hear is that coronavirus is a big problem only for a small number of people, especially in Maine, and doesn’t justify the society-wide response that has changed our lives over the last few months.
To this way of thinking, the nearly 20,000 Mainers who have been infected so far represent only 1.4 percent of the state’s population, meaning that for 98.6 percent of us, it’s a nonissue. The people who are downplaying the impact of COVID say that protecting such a small group was not worth the loss of economic activity, especially in businesses that can’t operate safely and productively while observing social distancing.
Most people can see the flaws in this argument, and it’s tempting to ignore them. But it’s brought up so frequently that it is in danger of spreading like the virus itself and its flaws need to be addressed as we set new records for cases on nearly a daily basis.
First of all, 20,000 people in Maine is not a small number. That’s about the size of a large town or medium-sized city in this state. Think the entire population of a place like Augusta, Brunswick or Sanford all getting sick before writing it off.
COVID, which barely existed this time last year, is currently the nation’s leading cause of death and will remain so for some weeks to come, when, hopefully, enough high-risk people will have been vaccinated. But even if the death toll starts to decline, this is still a hugely communicable virus that makes some people very ill, with what could be lifelong complications for survivors.
It’s ironic that the same people who claim we don’t need to worry about a small number of cases also criticize the public health emergency orders issued by Gov. Mills.
Maine is one of the safest places in the country because of those emergency orders. If Mills had listened to the protesters who gathered outside the Blaine House last April and May, and removed all restrictions on mass gatherings and indoor activities, we would have caseloads similar to those found in states like Nebraska or South Dakota, where governors decided to make public health a matter of personal choice.
Nearly 500 Mainers are testing positive for COVID every day. New cases are being diagnosed at 10 times the rate we saw as recently as October. The only thing stopping this community spread from turning into exponential spread is avoiding the kind of conduct that we know will spread the disease until the new vaccines are widely distributed.
We all have a stake in controlling the spread of coronavirus, even if only a small percentage of us have gotten sick so far. COVID-19 is not a hoax, and Maine’s response is not an overreaction.
Don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you that it is.
Time’s up, Sheriff Hodgson
Two investigations into a violent incident at a Bristol County jail in North Dartmouth that sent three immigrant detainees to the hospital have wrapped up — and the findings paint a damning portrait of the leadership of Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson.
In a 60-page report, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey concluded that Hodgson’s office used excessive force and acted with callous disregard for the well-being of detainees, and thus violated their civil rights, during the May confrontation. A second investigation, by the state Senate, found that Hodgson broke the law when he blocked state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz’s access to the jail the day after the incident. A third investigation, by the Office of the Inspector General at the US Department of Homeland Security, is pending.
It’s clearer than ever that Hodgson can’t be entrusted with immigration matters. That’s why the incoming Biden administration should terminate Hodgson’s two federal contracts that authorize him to house immigrant detainees and enforce immigration laws.
Healey’s report describes in detail what transpired that day — based on video evidence, interviews with staff and detainees, and other sources. The AG’s team wrote that Bristol County officers illegally deployed unmuzzled police dogs on detainees and used an excessive amount of pepper spray and pepper-ball projectiles. The report notes that “so much pepper spray was used that two detainees were taken to the hospital with symptoms of respiratory distress,” while a third had to be revived. “Perhaps most shocking, the detainee who required emergency chest compressions was not taken to the hospital for a medical evaluation,” the investigators wrote. He was “instead placed in solitary confinement.”
Hodgson, who is full of bluster and typically acts like he doesn’t answer to anyone, has often been called a Joe Arpaio wannabe, given the notoriously anti-immigrant attitudes he shares with the former Arizona sheriff. Hodgson regularly corresponds with Trump administration senior adviser Stephen Miller, the force behind the president’s nativist and restrictionist agenda on immigration, and has pushed for radical ideas like sending inmates to the Southern border to help build Trump’s wall.
Hodgson categorically rejected Healey’s findings and recommendations — which ranged from calling for the US Department of Homeland Security to terminate its partnership with Bristol County, to demanding that Hodgson adopt enhanced policies and robust training. “It’s about halfway down the sewer pipe,” the sheriff told reporters. ”That’s about how much value I put into the attorney general’s recommendations.”
“We’re disappointed by his statements that he won’t even consider our recommendations,” Healey said in an interview. “Every day that he fails to implement much-needed reform, he is risking the lives of every single person there, his detainees and staff alike.”
While Healey’s office did review video evidence from that day, Hodgson has refused to release any videos publicly. There is a pending lawsuit that the ACLU of Massachusetts filed to obtain those records. “To the extent that (Hodgson) is disputing the findings in our investigation, he should immediately release videos and incident reports to the public,” Healey said.
Because it’s unlikely that Hodgson will change his practices voluntarily, DHS should end Bristol County’s immigration contracts — one, a so-called 287(g) agreement, which allows the sheriff’s office to be deputized as US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and a second intergovernmental agreement to house and transport federal immigration detainees who are in civil deportation proceedings. Healey contends that Hodgson’s staff violated the terms of the second contract, which states, among other things, that the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office must comply with ICE’s detention standards. These standards include a directive that K9 dogs “will not be used for force, control or intimidation of detainees”; Healey’s investigation shows that’s exactly what happened during the May incident.
Hodgson has demonstrated that he cannot be trusted to respect immigrant detainees’ civil rights. Voters will have a chance to end his tenure in 2022. Until then, the incoming leadership at DHS should enforce the agency’s own standards and rescind Bristol County’s contracts.
Needs Not Wants
The Caledonian Record
St. Johnsbury School Superintendent Brian Ricca recently told the school board he would attempt a little austerity in the budget for the upcoming year.
In its annual tax rate letter, the Vermont Department of Taxes forecasts a nine-percent increase in education property taxes next year. So Ricca announced an intent to break from his longstanding commitment to spending like a drunk sailor.
“I literally only asked department heads to look at needs, not wants,” Ricca said.
To which we thought, ‘duh.’ It’s what struggling families and businesses do every day.
But we had no illusion that Ricca, et al., would actually restrain their rapacity.
Then, on cue, we heard from the Superintendent about his upcoming annual school report.
Recall that last year Ricca made a unilateral, head-scratching decision to (approximately) triple the cost of annual town meeting reports. He incurred approximately $5,000 in expense for a school report that was totally free to the school district for the better part of two decades when we published it at cost in the back of the annual town report.
So rather than pay nothing, Ricca decoupled the school report and hired a Georgia company to design the school portion for over $2,000. Then he spent double that amount to print the 12-page glossy brochure in New Hampshire. His publication didn’t include financial information required by state statute but Ricca said it would be a good marketing piece (he didn’t mention that he already has a monopoly on funding for St. Johnsbury students). We also would note the marketing reach was diminished because the extra copies he printed are still sitting out on our pressroom floor.
The bottom line is the spendthrift superintendent took a $0 taxpayer liability and turned it into a $5,000 debacle. In so doing he managed to export $4,750 of local money to out-of-state companies.
He liked that effort so much he’s planning to do it all over again.
Needs not wants? It’s a fantastical thought from a guy who, from the comfort of his home 80 miles West, has exclusively driven up taxpayer-costs since his arrival. That followed his departure from Montpelier, which paid him six figures just to go away, in a top-secret deal over performance issues. Keep in mind this is a guy that gouges about $200K a year in salary and benefits from taxpayers. Something tells us he couldn’t speak intelligently about needs even if it was something he was actually to want.