A state lawmaker and members of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration defended the $300,000 renovation of a New Haven community center run by individuals with ties to the Communist Party on Thursday at a Capitol press conference.
The New Haven project was flagged as questionable by Mary Plaskonka, a former state employee who emailed members of the state Bond Commission to ask why they would be giving money to an organization which operates on a part-time basis and hasn’t filed a 990 tax form with the IRS since 1999. It was pulled from the April 27 agenda after questions were raised but it’s now back on for June 4 meeting.
In the email, Plaskonka questioned why the state would be giving money to an organization which lacks “the financial resources to operate the facility to begin with.” At the end of the email she added links to Al Marder and Joelle Fishman who run the center and are members of the Communist Party.
The money was requested by Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, who said it will go to repair what was a part of New Haven’s landscape long before it became the New Haven Peoples Center. She said the 160-year-old building has architectural and historical significance for the state.
“The building is an official part of Connecticut’s African American Freedom Trail because of its contributions toward breaking down racial segregation in Connecticut in the 1940s and the 1950s. No one denies the value of preserving that link to Connecticut’s past as a reminder of the closed-minded, repressive way of thinking that perpetuated racism and segregation in our country,” she said.
The building has been home to New Haven’s first interracial theater group, first interracial basketball team, and also to the first campaign to end employment segregation, Harp said.
The structure now houses the New Haven Peoples Center, which Harp said is an all-volunteer organization that strives to improve the lives of others in the community.
“Today this building, a time-honored testament to so much rich history in our town, needs a facelift,” she said.
But Rep. Sean Williams, one of the two Republican members of the Bond Commission, said the concern with the project is that there is no documentation so it’s impossible to determine whether it’s a worthy project.
“If it wasn’t for Mary Plaskonka we would have never known about this,” Williams said in a phone interview Thursday.
He said the Bond Commission project is problematic because it’s projects like the People’s Center that aren’t being properly vetted.
“It’s a legislative earmark and that’s all we know,” Williams said.
Malloy’s Budget Director Ben Barnes said the amount of money the center will receive matches the work they’re doing on the building. He’s previously defended the fact that the organization hasn’t filed a form with the IRS in several years because it brings in less than $50,000 and is exempt.
Harp, who requested the money on behalf of her constituents, said the building needs masonry repairs, roof replacement, woodwork repairs, an upgrade to its heating system, and window replacements.
Barnes defended the work and the organization saying that the “political affiliations of an organization are irrelevant,” when it comes to the work of the Bond Commission.
“Frankly though this project is not at all political. I mean it’s political in the sense that a member of the General Assembly asked that we do it,” Barnes said. “Today, Senator Harp stood up and said why. I think that she is right in the value of the organization and the needs of the building.”
Williams disagrees. He said there’s a “stench associated with doling out public money to political allies,” and in the case of the People’s Center he believes there’s a “much stronger political connection than they would have you believe.”
Williams argued if a nonprofit organization like the Yankee Institute asked for funding from the state Bond Commission they would not be on the “top of this administration’s list.” But then again, the conservative think-tank wouldn’t ever ask for state funding, he added.
The Bond Commission should stick to funding projects pertaining to public safety, public health, and infrastructure, Williams said. Playgrounds and gazebos are nice but he doesn’t think that’s how the taxpayers want the state spending their money.
But Harp argued there’s a return on the state’s investment when it comes to this project.
“Return on the state’s modest investment is inherent in the community-based programs and services delivered by this all volunteer organization. Allocated funds will be wisely and frugally spent by an organization accustomed to operating with extremely limited resources,” she said.
Hugh McQuaid contributed to this report.