Middletown: Change Starts at Home
New Haven Independent, January 29, 2020
By Chris Gilson, CCM communications writers
While politics on the national level garner the most attention from network news and television shows, the real work and change comes from the local level according to Middletown Mayor Ben Florsheim.
On this week’s episode of the Municipal Voice, brought to you by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, we discussed the role towns and cities will play in the coming years, but also how that will change as Mayor Florsheim is one of just two millennials holding a top elected office in any Connecticut municipality.
His attraction to municipal work came from his time with Senator Chris Murphy’s office as a community organizer, something he brings with him to the mayor’s office.
“You have to go in with an organizer’s mindset, rather than a policy mindset,” he said referring to the work he’d like to get done in town.
“We have to think big. It’s why municipal government was interesting to me. This is where things are happening.”
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges.
Like so many other places in Connecticut, Middletown has a cost-of-living problem that he’d like to rein in. “When it comes to property tax, energy costs, utility costs, it’s an expensive state to live,” he said.
And some of that stems from the way things are at the federal level and even the state level. During the budgeting process, Middletown has to grapple with the Payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) being “chronically and historically underfunded.”
Funding opportunities back to top
Part of the reason he decided to create a Middletown Complete Count Committee to support the upcoming census was to ensure they’re not missing crucial funding opportunities from the federal government.
Florsheim’s plans for Middletown are big. When talking about local politics, he invokes the Green New Deal, Participatory Budgeting and getting everyone in on it, Shared Services and Regionalization, and the developments he wants to see.
And he sees municipalities as leading the way: “it’s local jobs, it’s local projects, local businesses. The work is already being done. The cities and towns have to be the entities that lead the way on this.”
Speaking to a recent op-ed that Florsheim wrote for the Hartford Courant, he says that pessimism about the state is a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s why he tries to bring a positive outlook to what can be accomplished.
“You’re in this line of work to get things done, to help people,” he said, “even if it’s fixing a pothole, that’s meaningful to people’s lives.”
And he sees Connecticut as a place where people do want to move and want to stay. He names himself, a transplant from the Midwest, as someone who has decided to call Middletown home.
He notes that people are being priced out of places like Boston and New York, so smaller cities have to stay “laser-focused” on cost. And that making a city like Middletown a better place to live as well as do business can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, a virtuous rather than vicious cycle.
That change starts at home.
“I want to put it into people’s minds that there are people who like living here. There are young people moving in.”
“When you see the other side of the fence, maybe it’s not always greener,” he said, “We have challenges, but they become less existential, less immutable.”