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Bridgeport rebounds from bankruptcy to balanced budgets.

What is it like to teeter on the edge of a cliff, and find the strength to pull back?

Six years ago, the city of Bridgeport made history as the first major city in the country to declare bankruptcy. Huge tax increases and budget deficits were strangling residents and businesses. Soaring crime threatened the livelihood of neighborhoods. The bankruptcy filing that turned Bridgeport into a national symbol of urban decay loomed as the knockout blow that forced Connecticut's largest city over the edge.

With the city facing an $18 million budget deficit, a projected $250 million cumulative budget deficit by the end of 1997, and a credit rating just one rung above junk status in 1991, the voters of Bridgeport made a change in leadership, electing Joseph P. Ganim as mayor.

What followed is the most remarkable municipal recovery story in the country. "Many times during those early days, I questioned what I had gotten myself into," Ganim said, reflecting on facing the city's financial hemorrhaging. "Each week, the red ink threatened to increased, we didn't have the luxury of time so we had to pull together quickly."

Shortly after Ganim was sworn in for his first term, he pulled the city out of bankruptcy court and began the job of repairing its finances, infrastructure and beleaguered image.

The methods used are a blueprint for solid, steady municipal recovery. They include the traditional -- a hard bottom line on spending and pragmatic union negotiating -- combined with pioneering uses of privatization.

In all cases, recovery required quick, bold steps. The first were internal. Ganim negotiated more than $10 million in concessions from the city unions. He ordered a review of the city's health insurance coverage, which resulted in a savings of $10 million annually. Aggressive tax collections and tax lien sales pulled in another $10 million.

Then it was time to reach out.

Ganim went to bat with then-Gov. Lowell P. Weicker. They developed a stimulus package for the city that included the state purchase of Beardsley Park and Zoological Gardens -- the only zoo in Connecticut -- from the city, financing for a new downtown Bridgeport campus for Housatonic Community Technical College, the relocation of state police barracks to downtown Bridgeport, and the state take-over of the Bridgeport train station.

"I had to earn my stripes with the governor," Ganim said. "He said if I made the tough decisions internally to restore the city's fiscal integrity, he would do his part for the city."

Together, the city and the state were also able to offer incentive packages to keep Chase Manhattan Bank of Connecticut, Southern Connecticut Gas Company and Remington in Bridgeport.

Cooperation and privatization have gone hand-in-hand in Bridgeport's recovery.

Over the last five years, the city negotiated contracts with private firms to manage and operate the city's golf course, cap the city's landfill, run school-based health clinics, and the wastewater treatment systems. The sewage system contract with Professional Services Group, Inc. will save rate payers $10 million over the next five years alone.

This use of selective privatization relieves the city of significant risk factors, such as worker's compensation, and puts the responsibility of planning for and financing long-term capital improvement projects and unexpected improvements onto the contractor.

This is not complete privatization, but it works to the city's benefit. Bridgeport retains ownership of these facilities, and they in turn become revenue generators, since the contractors pay the city a percentage of the profits. It is an emerging municipal management technique that the city and Ganim are perfecting.

Savings from privatization and prudent financial planning lead to a cut of $26 million in taxes over the last two years, and budget surpluses for the first time in the second half of this century. In the last year, Moody's and Standard and Poor's elevated the city's credit rating to investment grade.

Pairing up with the private sector has paid off in other ways. The city is working with the area's electric utility company to develop a waterfront long left stagnant. The United Illuminating Company joined the city and the state on an international search for proposals to turn 25 acres of jointly-owned waterfront into a mixed-use development including retail and entertainment ventures.

The project, known as Steel Point Waterfront Development, was marketed as the last undeveloped urban deep-water site in the Northeast. The RFQ process drew responses from around the globe, and the Steel Point committee is currently reviewing three proposals from three qualified developers. A plan is expected to be approved by the end of the year, with ground-breaking in early 1998.

"The project worked because all parties gave something," said Bridgeport economic development director Michael Freimuth. "Bridgeport dedicated $6.5 million in bond money for land acquisition, the state committed money for clean-up and infrastructure improvements, and UI joined the city in investing $75,000 into marketing."

Cleaning up the city -- both its image and its neighborhoods -- has been another link in the chain.

An anti-blight committee targeted 450 blighted buildings in Bridgeport back in 1991. By year end, the final buildings will be down to make room for parks, new housing and new businesses. To make the project work, the city committed $9 million for removal and clean-up.

In addition, the city's Don't Dump On Us and its Clean & Green campaigns have cut down on illegal dumping through the confiscation of vehicles, and beautified city entrances and open space.

Perhaps the biggest challenge Bridgeport has combated is the negative attitude that permeated the city and the state during the days of the threat of bankruptcy and high crime.

The city realized that before it could draw anyone back within its borders to enjoys its museums, theaters, and family attractions, Bridgeport had to prove that it had its house in order.

"The people of Bridgeport have always been resilient, always been fighters," Ganim said. "We refused to be beaten by the negative feelings of the past. We have a lot to offer, and we owed it to ourselves to get that message out."

The city has embarked on a unique television advertising campaign. Instead of focusing just on tourism attractions, the commercials showcase the city's quality education system, economic opportunities and increased public safety record. By summer's end, three will have aired, featuring a real Bridgeport father, the president of Bridgeport-based People's Bank, the largest bank based in Connecticut, and a female Bridgeport police officer discussing security and safety.

The theme of the commercials is "The people of Bridgeport, working their way back."

"Six years ago, investors avoided Bridgeport," People's Bank President David E. A. Carson says in one ad. "Today, it's a city where there are opportunities everywhere."

Ann Harrison is a public information spokesperson for the city of Bridgeport.
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Title Annotation:City Ideas That Work; Bridgeport, Connecticut
Author:Harrison, Ann
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Jul 28, 1997
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