Barnes warms to the challenge of Connecticut’s fiscal crisis

Those close to Gov.-elect Dan Malloy say they never doubted who’d be asked to tackle a massive budget deficit, end billions of dollars worth of fiscal gimmicks and help revitalize a stagnant job market.

Connecticut’s fiscal Rubik’s Cube was destined for Ben Barnes’ hands from the moment the election was over.

Barnes, Ben

Ben Barnes: ‘The day of reckoning does come’ (Keith M. Phaneuf)

“Ben is one of those rare talents,” Tom Cassone, former Stamford city corporation counsel, said. “He develops his thoughts, expresses them so well, and carries them out. He even speaks in fully developed paragraphs.

“Anybody who knew Stamford city government knew Ben Barnes would be OPM (Office of Policy and Management) secretary.”

The appointment of Barnes, the 42-year-old chief operating officer for the Bridgeport public schools and an outsider to Capitol circles, stunned many political observers earlier this month. He will head the budget office for an administration facing the worst fiscal challenges in two decades.

Raised in St. Petersburg, Fla., Barnes has spent most of the past two decades connected to municipal government, first as a policy expert for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, then by holding three posts under Malloy in Stamford, and lastly with his current job in Bridgeport.

But while no one expects Barnes to reverse overnight fiscal problems that have developed over years–and in some cases decades–his supporters say the new budget chief has insight to find solutions others would miss.

“Ben always wants to get to the heart of the matter,” Malloy said. “He’s a very bright guy, very inquisitive and he’s willing to peel the onion.”

“Ben is unflappable,” said Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, another veteran of Malloy’s municipal administration. “He has the unique capability of mastering any aspect of government in short order.”

McDonald, who also had served as city corporation counsel, first met Barnes 10 years ago when he applied to lead the city’s efforts to promote affordable housing. Over the next decade, Barnes also would oversee Stamford budget and financial operations, as well as its public works and engineering departments.

But it was while pursuing his master’s degree in urban planning at New York University in the late 1980s that Barnes first gained his interest in economics and government finances.

“I learned that if you wanted to build stuff and make cities better places, the single biggest impediment was figuring out how to pay for it,” he said during an interview Thursday.

For example, when a city program to help poor families purchase affordable housing bogged down about five years ago, Barnes moved “decisively” to help hundreds of families, according to Joan Carty, president of The Housing Development Fund, Inc., the Stamford-based nonprofit working with the city on that project.

Delays in receiving federal funds kept some eligible families from closing on homes. But Barnes arranged a broader funding pool that temporarily leveraged city funds to resolve the problem without added costs, she said.

“It was fixed virtually overnight because Ben got the problem and he knew how to solve it,” Carty said. “It became immediately apparent to me he could home in on whatever challenge you had and then take it to the next step.”

Barnes, who lives in Stratford with his wife, Tania, and their three sons, conceded that when it comes to politics, he’s comfortable with a low-key approach.

His friends say that might be an understatement.

“Ben would gladly sit at the back of the room,” Cassone said. “He’s not a big personality, like Dan is, but he’s just as bright.”

“Ben is good with words and he’s good with numbers,” CCM Executive Director James Finley said. “That’s a rare combination.”

Barnes’ father, Andrew, a who retired two years ago as chief executive officer for the St. Petersburg Times, spent nearly four decades in journalism as a reporter, editor and newspaper executive, including stints at the Washington Post and Providence Journal-Bulletin.

Despite taking on one of the most sensitive positions in state government, Barnes said he doesn’t anticipate an adversarial role with the news media, even though there will be times he can’t comment on issues under development.

“I really believe in the public’s right to know,” he said. “I’m a big supporter of the news media, and a big consumer. Hey, they paid for me to go to college.”

McDonald, who once described Barnes as a “little geeky,” said his former colleague is shockingly bright with a dry sense of humor. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he takes his job very seriously.”

And though no one said they expect Barnes to find any fiscal silver bullets to solve the budget crisis, they predicted his recommendations will speak for themselves.

Fiscal gimmicks, such as paying tomorrow for expenses incurred today or using one-time funds to support ongoing programs, have been a prerogative of legislatures throughout history, Barnes said. But if Connecticut is to begin moving in another direction, it means reminding officials of the price tag that comes with those short-cuts.

“If you build a cliff for yourself, you have to remember that the day of reckoning does come,” he said, referring to a nearly $3.7 billion built-in deficit in the first budget Malloy must draft, a shortfall equal to nearly half of all annual revenue from the state income tax.

Barnes’ tenure in Stamford also taught him the value of taking “well-considered risks to make government work better”–a philosophy Malloy uses to empower his staff. “If my people can convince me of the rightness of their ideas, they can probably convince anybody,” Malloy said.

“I’ve been very frustrated because I don’t think the state of Connecticut has lived up to the potential that it has,” Barnes said. “I think there is a lot of room for more creativity and some ideas to make things work better.”

A small strategic investment can make a huge difference, he said, recalling how assigning one city employee in Stamford a few years ago to expand health care outreach resulted in thousands of uninsured, needy residents being enrolled the state’s HUSKY program.

“It was a tremendous benefit to the community and it took just one person,” he said.

Barnes and Malloy haven’t tipped their hands regarding the fiscal solutions they’ll present to the legislature in just over two months, but the new budget director said he expects his boss will be fully engaged.

Barnes said his relationship with Malloy is built both on professionalism and friendship–along with a mutual fascination with how government works.

“Dan does his homework,” Barnes said. “He remembers everything you tell him with astonishing clarity. I like to talk about public policy myself, but he will keep needling you to keep telling him details about things. … He is very interested in how everything works.”

The two met in 1990s when Barnes was working on education policy for CCM, and the new Stamford mayor had been chosen the coalition’s president.

Barnes had become fascinated with public funding strategies for education and Malloy was grappling with a system that penalized Stamford for its wealthy tax base while failing to recognize the city’s large pockets of poverty.

“He was a very exciting new mayor of a big city and we raised a number of ideas,” Barnes said.

Barnes returned briefly to Florida for less than a year in 2000, but ultimately decided he wanted to return to Connecticut. A resume was sent unsolicited to the Malloy administration, and a few interviews later, Barnes would begin a 10-year tenure in city government.

“Ben and I have always worked well,” Malloy said, adding that those who suspected Barnes always had been part of his plans for state government are correct. “He was always going to play a role in my administration.”