When last this column visited the troubled town of Winsted in November, it looked like the place had hit rock bottom. The town was flat broke, partly the result of the embezzlement of at least $2 million — but perhaps as much as $7 million — by the town’s longtime finance director.
Henry Centrella is a member of a large and respected town family and was Winsted’s only finance director. He had held the post for 30 years and now sits in jail after pleading guilty, even as the specter of his shameful theft continues to roil the waters of the Mad River in this once-proud mill town.
Back in November, the state Department of Education was investigating the town of Winchester, as it is formally known, for not meeting the state’s minimum budget requirement, while the superintendent told parents and taxpayers the town’s public schools might close in December for lack of cash. A state takeover of the Winchester school district looked like a real possibility.
Meanwhile, Winsted’s roads were allowed to crumble, causing the public works director to resign in protest. And the nine retired cops who risked their lives on those roads saw their pension and benefits program canceled. The city was crumbling — literally and figuratively — from parsimony, neglect, and corruption.
Since that column first appeared, things seemed to have improved. New leaders took office, a supplemental tax was enacted and the town received a bank loan in advance of educational cost sharing grants from the state, thus keeping the schools open. A bright new finance director from Bristol was hired to replace the crook who preceded her. Members of a Winsted politics Facebook page urged me to write an updated column pointing to the improvements, which I promised to do.
But alas, by the time I got around to writing the op-ed, Winsted’s fortunes had resumed their downward spiral. In a case of bitter irony, on the same day that Centrella was sentenced, the finance director who took his place quit to return to her old job in Bristol. Two members of the Board of Selectmen, including the newly-appointed mayor herself, have resigned. And if the resignations of those two public officials weren’t enough, their departures sparked an ugly fight over who had the authority to replace them.
The relatively new public works director then announced his resignation, but the worst was yet to come. Schools Superintendent Thomas Danehy, a breath of fresh air whose predecessor was widely considered to be a miserable failure, announced he was jumping ship, too.
Choruses of “Another One Bites The Dust” began on social media. One writer on a Torrington Register Citizen comment thread asked if “the last person leaving Town Hall would turn off the lights and lock the door please.”
In a sluggish economy and a tight job market, how could so many capable people leave town — in some cases, to parts unknown? I can only imagine that concerned Winsted taxpayers are hoping against hope that Town Manager Dale Martin doesn’t fly the coop soon. With the town’s reputation in tatters, it’s hard to see how it could attract any talent to replace those officials who have simply given up and walked away.
I worked in Winsted for five years as alumni and development director for the town’s high school. I got to know hundreds of capable, upstanding citizens and public officials there. Why the town can’t get its act together is beyond me.
I’d hate to see it happen, but it just might be that the only way for Winsted to regain its footing is for the state to come in and run things for awhile. As draconian as that seems, a state takeover would be far easier than giving the town a personality transplant.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.