Blue Ribbon Report Rips Budget
(Updated) When a citizens’ review panel’ gave its formal critique of the city’s proposed budget on Thursday night, a planned freeze of property taxes took center stage.
The critique was made by members of a panel set up by the Board of Aldermen to take an outside look at how better to budget. They put in their two cents at Thursday night’s meeting of the aldermanic Finance Committee.
Calling it “sleight of hand”, blue-ribbon panelist H. Richter Elser (at left in photo) decried a revaluation freeze that is central to the 2009/2010 fiscal year’s budget. The aldermen were unconvinced by his arguments.
The freeze passed the state senate on Wednesday and is now pending before the state house. If permitted, the freeze would allow the city to delay the planned phase-in of new property taxes based on 2006 evaluations. The phase-in would result in higher taxes for homeowners, as the city’s property tax burden would shift from business to residential properties.
A delayed phase-in is key to next year’s proposed budget. But Elser and blue ribbon panel chair Tim Holahan (at right in photo) told the Finance Committee that the plan would amount to passing the buck and hiding the real state of the city from its residents. The two men also voiced dire warnings about the city’s growing debt.
After the meeting Holahan, expressed frustration with the discussion. He said that the phase-in issue is actually a distraction from deeper concerns about the budget and its handling by aldermen. A lack of transparency obscures more significant issues, like the city’s growing debt, Holahan said.
The blue ribbon budget review panel is an 11-member group created last summer through a Board of Aldermen vote. It’s comprised of seven citizens, two aldermen, and the city budget director and controller. The panel is charged with reviewing the city’s budget and providing advice and recommendations to the aldermen.
During and after the meeting, several aldermen voiced their disappointment with the panel, saying that it had not provided “actionable” recommendations in a timely manner. Holahan said that he was happy with what the panel had accomplished, given its “unclear mandate.”
Holahan and Elser’s discussion with the Finance Committee was the first part of a longer meeting, in which the committee approved the budget for next year with two amendments. The recommendations of the panel did not come up again in the Finance Committee’s budget deliberations.
While the panel does not yet have its final report on the budget, Holahan presented the Finance Committee with the recommendations that the panelists have so far agreed upon.
“The city is in an awful lot of debt and an equal amount of liability,” Holahan said. In terms of liability — money promised for the future — Holahan referred to the millions in pension and health care payments that the city has promised to provide to its union employees. He said later that the city is paying $14 million a year for “sweetheart deals” to unions, and that it should be paying an additional $27 million each year into a fund for future pension and health care payments. The city set aside only $50,000 for such future payments last year, Holahan said.
On top of this, Holahan said, the city has a $700 million debt caused by, among other things, new school construction. He said that the city’s debt and liability added up to between one and two billion dollars.
“That’s a scary number,” he told the finance committee. “In not dealing with these numbers we’re putting future generations … in increasing peril…. I call upon you to weigh that in your deliberations.”
Holahan also asked the board to weigh the ramifications of delaying the phase-in, saying it was “not as forward looking as I would like it to be.”
“If you wanted to freeze homeowner taxes, I would urge you to cut spending,” Holahan said. “We’re tying our hands behind our back.”
A delay “masks the shift” of taxes from business and commercial to residential property owners, said Elser, a blue ribbon panelist and former Republican candidate for mayor. It “works against the goal of transparency” and “helps keep people unaware” of the real state of the city’s tax base, which has shifted from businesses to homeowners.
East Rock Alderman Roland Lemar said that the phase-in delay is necessary given the current state of the housing market, one in which “the value of properties is fluid at best.” The thing to do is freeze taxes and hope that the economy settles down, he argued.
Elser countered that the delay is a matter of political expediency. “We know people don’t like the revaluation… so we’re giving them a false one,” he said. The real issue, he continued, is the city’s inability to attract business, which has increased the residential tax burden. The phase-in delay is bit of “sleight of hand” to conceal this fact, Elser said.
“Spoken like a true Republican,” Beaver Hill Alderman Moti Sandman said after the meeting, referring to Elser’s comments. Sandman said that if the tax phase-in went through, “you would have people lining up at the tax office because they couldn’t pay their bills.”
“To suggest that it’s ‘sleight of hand’ is ignoring reality,” said Lemar. “I think it’s completely disingenuous as to what’s going on.” Lemar said that since the 2006 tax evaluation “bears no relevancy to values in 2009,” the most responsible thing to do is freeze taxes. “It’s the safest thing.”
Although the debate over property taxes dominated the finance committee’s conversation with Holahan and Elser on Thursday night, Holahan later said that that topic was just “small potatoes,” compared to larger flaws in the city’s fiscal plans.
“This is a distraction from the real issue,” he said after the meeting. The real problem with the budget, according to Holahan, is the combination of crippling debt it creates and a lack of transparency and performance assessment.
“We’re not getting our money’s worth,” he said.
Holahan said at the meeting that he thinks that there needs to be greater oversight and measurement of effectiveness of city programs, to assess the value of tax dollars. He called for “metrics for performance” for different city departments. “If they don’t have them, they need to define them,” he said.
Clearer expectations and reports about city activities would allow for greater input from residents, Holahan argued. For instance, he said, the average citizen should know that “over 50 percent” of city money goes to education. “That’s what our government does more than anything else, is educate our children,” Holahan said. That fact is more remarkable when it is combined with declining student test scores, Holahan said. “If people saw that, we’d have a lively debate.”
“If all departments had the same performance as our schools, you’d fire all our department heads,” Elser said.
Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield (pictured) spoke up to defend New Haven schools. “In fairness to the Board of Education… there’s no simple measuring stick for education,” he said. Parents love their children’s teachers, he said.
“There’s something else going on that just can’t be measured,” he said.
Elser agreed that test scores are not the definitive measure of school success, but in the absence of another measurement, they should be taken into consideration. “We need to be not just taking people off the streets, and actually educating them,” he said.
“I’m not against education spending, but what are we getting for it?” Holahan asked after the meeting.
Blue Ribbon? Honorable Mention?
Thursday night’s meeting included several critiques of the blue ribbon budget review panel.
Finance Committee Chairman Yusuf Shah chided Elser and Holahan for the panel’s slow pace. “I have concerns about timeliness and getting info in to the committee,” Shah said. “In the future you need to get it to us on time or express why we don’t have it.”
“Our charge asked us to make a report on June 30th,” Elser said. He was interrupted by Shah, who spoke to Holahan, “Tim, you know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Later, Westville Alderwoman Ina Silverman said that she was looking for more specifics from the panel after their “crash course” in the city budget.
“What are the priorities? What is it that we can cut?” she said. “That’s the kind of information that would be really useful to me.”
Holahan asked Silverman if she had seen the panel’s summary document. “I identified five core service areas,” he said.
“We can’t do it for you,” he said. He argued that more transparency and better performance evaluation would yield better information from residents about their priorities. In the meantime, given the composition of the panel, Holahan said that it couldn’t speak for the whole city. “We’re almost all homeowners… almost all Caucasian,” Holahan said. Also, most of the panelists are from East Rock and Westville, Holahan said.
After the meeting, the critique of the panel continued.
“I was really disappointed that they didn’t come earlier with more actionable items,” Alderman Sandman said. The panel had nine months and hours of staff support, Sandman said, “and what are we getting for it?”
Sandman said that the panel’s recommendations on union negotiation on pensions duplicated work that he and Lemar had done months ago.
Sandman said that the panel’s final report will not come in time for the board to act on it. He said that he was not in support of continuing the panel for another year.
“I don’t know that what they’ve prepared to date justifies the time and cost in city staff,” Lemar said.
“I think the city resources that went into it were almost nothing,” Holahan said later. He said the panel made a few photocopies; that was it.
“I think it’s fair to say we haven’t had the influence that some might have hoped,” Holahan said. In defense of the panel, he noted, “We had a very unclear mandate.”
Holahan also responded with some criticisms of his own. “They were pretty resistant to any spending recommendations we made,” he said. The aldermanic response to suggested cuts was always, “We can’t do this because X constituency group will be upset,” he said.
Aldermen were unwilling to deal with Yale, Holahan said, calling the university “the big blue elephant in the room.”
“The alders don’t even look at Yale, it’s like they’ve got blinders on,” Holahan said. Many Yale faculty members are engaged in lucrative consulting work using Yale office space and infrastructure, Holahan said, even as Yale continues to have tax-exempt status in the city.
The city should enlist Yale to fund “specific, accountable projects,” Holahan said, like an “early reading success program.”
Holahan wasn’t optimistic that his panel’s final report would be read. “I doubt it,” he said. The blue ribbon panel was the last in a long series of civilian boards whose findings will be filed away on a shelf somewhere, he said.
Nevertheless, Holahan was proud of the panel’s achievements. “We did a lot of independent research, of the kind that never comes from the aldermen.”
“In my mind I have no regrets,” he said. “I think this is part of the process of changing the debate in the city.”
Holahan said that the panel’s final report will be out in the last week of June. The panel will have more recommendations for the board of aldermen before their final vote on the budget on May 26.
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Posted by: downtown d | May 8, 2009 10:21 AM
freezing the assessment and keeping the mill rate at a higher rate keeps everyone's car tax at a higher rate. yes, it keeps the residential real-estate property owners from seeing more of a shift, but more residents of new haven are renters and more are car owners.
this is a slight of hand to appease our residential home owners happy. and it's also an election year.
the only true answer is cut expenses, that's how you keep your taxes lower. do more with less. using technology is one way to do that.
Posted by: anon | May 8, 2009 10:27 AM
freezing taxes from last year is actually a regressive tax - who will be paying higher car tax? who needs the help the most?
this from a "democratic" board and mayor? sounds more like a tax cut for the wealthier in our city at the backs of the poor.
but i guess anything to take the focus off of the real problem in the city - mismanagement.
Posted by: anon | May 8, 2009 10:46 AM
just to be clear - "mismanagement" applies to both sides of our government. the executive proposes, and the legislative agrees.
power of the purse is an important power, unless you continue to give money without a clear goal of where to go.
Posted by: Tim Holahan | May 8, 2009 11:22 AM
Tom Macmillan is a dedicated reporter, and I appreciate his hard work and the Independent's commitment to covering important but unglamorous subjects like these. However, there are several inaccuracies in this story. I'd like to correct one or two that I consider important to understanding what's going on in the city's budget process.
I did not make a plea for the phasing-in of the revaluation, and I do not think property tax issues are "small potatoes". I think the endless conversation about the revaluations is a distraction from the real issues that face this city. The two issues I believe are most critical are the ones I spoke about last night: a lack of transparency and accountability in our government, and a terrible load of debt and liability that we are doing very little to address.
By controlling spending and the mill rate, the Mayor and aldermen control how much we are taxed. The revaluation of properties is intended to balance out value fluctuations within the city, but it's not supposed to have a significant effect on the rate of taxation overall. Focusing on revaluation takes the attention of citizens away from the real decision-making that goes on in the Budget process, decisions that maintain unsupportable levels of spending.
I am not anti-union; I think that city employees should have excellent salaries, healthcare, and pension plans. However, the level of commitment the city made in the last round of contracts has significantly increased an already-dangerous level of liability. It seems very possible that the city will not be able to honor its commitments to its retirees. One alderman, by questions he asked last night, made it clear that he was unaware that we are putting no money aside to cover estimated future healthcare liabilities of $430MM. Where will that money come from?
I have enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to participate in the Panel. I believe that the total cost to the city was less than $100, and that was almost entirely in photocopies. We have been very ably and generously assisted by Al Lucas, Director of Legislative Services, but Al is a salaried employee, so his participation did not create additional costs.
As to the questions of "timeliness": the panel was appointed a month later than the creating legislation ordered. Therefore we did not produce the first of the quarterly reports the order called for, since we had not created any recommendations two months into our work. We have since reported regularly to the alders. I think the level of work and documentation we have produced speaks for itself. Our work will be summarized in a final report we will deliver the last week in June.
In the meantime, if you are interested in learning more about the Panel's work, please check out our Google Group website at:
[Ed.'s Note: Article updated. Thanks for the clarification, Tim.]
Posted by: Heightz | May 8, 2009 12:48 PM
I am a homeowner and can not afford to pay anymore in property tax. If this hike went into affect I do not know what I'll do.
Downtown: I'll rather SELL my car then lose the roof over my head
Posted by: robn | May 8, 2009 1:40 PM
just curious...do any of the blue ribbon panelists hold commercial property or residential property in new Haven and in what proportions?
downtown d Ya and you rent from a property owner and they can raise your rent yearly based on the market and taxes. Sooo yes you will get an increase.
The small number of owner occupied home in this city are shouldering the burden of taxes here, I personally would like to see the renters and car owners pay to.
I am with Heightz on this. Roof-car I choose roof.
Posted by: Ribbons | May 8, 2009 2:09 PM
Tim and Rick do not represent the full views (or even partial views) of the commission - NOWHERE in our minutes did we articulate our support for the continuation of the phase-in and Alderman lemar is right when he says that these two are ignoring reality when they articulate that position. We all need to have morefacts before we spout off, and Tim and Rick have the facts, but they also know no one will pay attention unless they have grand ideas that are popoular but not good for anyone.
Posted by: Streever | May 8, 2009 3:05 PM
I'm a little dismayed when I see our hard-working alders criticizing unpaid hard-working volunteers!
I'm glad we have transparency on this process. The hard part about transparency is what happens when people disagree with the people in power--that's part of transparency, and I think we need to accept it & be grateful that we could find this many citizens who were willing to spend their time & energy.
They may have gotten some things wrong, but I don't think they should be looked to by Alderman Silverman to do the bulk of the aldermanic work.
Thank you to Hoolahan and the others for keeping us in awareness that we may have, as a city, be in the hole for 2 billion dollars. That is a scary number, & while I disagree with the tax Yale mantra (I'm pretty sure they do pay taxes on their commercial holdings? and I don't want New Haven to be known as the city that began taxing education for their non-commercial holdings) I do think we need to face the struggles that may exist.
Posted by: downtown d | May 8, 2009 3:20 PM
heightz: i agree. we should find ways to reduce expenses so the city does not need to collect the amount of taxes they currently do. my point is exactly the one you're making: no one can pay more taxes. to say that homeowners can't pay more taxes, so we'll change the rules of the game and hurt personal property owners is not a solution that is fair, equitable, legal (needed to change the law to allow this), or Democratic. i also think it's a good idea for you to sell your car - if you can find ways within our outdated transportation system to live without one. I doubt you can, as we don't have good solutions without the use of a car (yet). If you would like, I'd gladly do a comparison for you on what you would have paid had the taxes continued in the manner in which they were scheduled. I believe the rough estimate was an AVERAGE of ~$135/year per homeowner on the increase. Or, to put it more simply, 3 gas tanks. As a homeowner, you can do things to lower your expenses (as can renters naturally) to make up that $135 - lower/raise your thermostat 2 degrees for the cold/hot months for example. The point of me bringing this is up Heightz is that to say this is a help to homeowners on the backs personal property (and commercial) property owners is also not a fair way. Lowering the cost of government is the only real way to see tax relief. This idea isn't really even a bandaid, it's more of a blindfold.
Posted by: downtown d | May 8, 2009 3:47 PM
Cedarhillresident: this tax increase/revaulation isn't news. it's years old. rates aren't increasing this year solely due to this year's phase-in, nor would they be lowered this year if the taxes were frozen. rates were raised the minute the revaluation (with the phase-in) was known. these decisions we're talking about do not affect this year's rate. nor next year's rate. this one-off decision has no (real) affect on rates, except that for homeowners they budgeted higher rents to cover the higher expenses, and now the homeowners will not have to pay the higher expense (which was known from the moment the revaluation occurred), but the renters are still in the higher rates. i just realized this, and it makes it even MORE regressive.
So for your peace of mind, know that renters are paying their share of taxes, and will receive NO BENEFIT from this tax freeze. Again, my point is that we should be focusing on what's important - lowering expenses - rather than discussing this phase-in.
you have to look at it from both sides. real property and personal property taxes will increase as long as expenses by the city increase. it's simple. total expenses = total revenues needed to pay for expenses. revenues come from fees, tickets, state reimbursement, and taxes. so if you want lower taxes, you want lower expenses, and you want accountability to hold departments to performance.
Posted by: City Hall Watch | May 8, 2009 4:55 PM
This is the only testimony I'm providing on the budget this year and I'm glad for it. To have spent many hours across several months as I've done for several years, watching the Finance Committee flip through the budget book, ask mostly unintelligent, uninformed, and unimportant questions about inconsequential matters would have been a waste of time, monumentally frustrating and guaranteed useless. Citizens wait hours and are given three minutes. The buzzer goes off, you're dismissed and the spending is approved. There would have been the usual parade of city department heads before the committee, not one of them able to identify any significant savings or efficiencies in their budgets, who think so little of the public, the taxpayer who funds them; they don't even stick around to hear what the public testimony is.
With that as a backdrop, my points are as follows:
1.Blue Ribbon Committee was set up to provide cover and excuses for the NH BOA's rubberstamp approach to spending in New Haven. It was always going to be the fall guy and to hear Roland Lemar, Moti Sandman, Yusef Shah, Carl Goldfield and others say they were depending on the BRB to supply them with budget cuts is about as lame and pathetic excuse for excessive spending as they've ever proffered.
2.Not one of these four musketeers has ever provided a significant spending cut, not a single one. They didn't this year either. They couldn't find something in the budget to cut with two hands, a mirror and flashlight. The budget can be cut but you have to be willing to cut it - this group is unwilling to do so and finds every excuse not to do so. Even when presented with specific, actionable cuts across the last three years, did they implement a single one of them? No.
3. Not a rubberstamp? Mayor DeStefano proposed a $464 million budget. A $464 million budget was approved including a million dollars again this year for Tweed's incredibly shrinking passenger counts at an airport 99% of New Haveners can't use. Roland and Moti did shift dollars to build a catch basin for a polluted pond down the street from Moti's house. (Note to Moti: If you won't let your kids touch the water, why in god's name would you take them canoeing in that sewer?) The changes in the budget amounted to 0.0002 percent of the spending plan. No dollars were cut.
4. The Blue Ribbon for dishonesty and uninformed comments go to Moti Sandman and Roland Lemar. It's truly embarrassing to have Lemar pretend he knows what he's talking about and question the work worthy efforts of a volunteer board pretending that it cost the city taxpayers significant dollars. It didn't and as usual, he should have checked his information first. Sandman's comment, "what are we getting for it?" is just as bad. Sandman, you're getting more than you give, I'll guarantee you that. On union pensions, the panel is duplicating the fine work of you and Lemar - right. And what exactly is the result of your extraordinary work? What's changed? Anything? Nothing. Dismissing comments as inherently "republican" is shallow and juvenile.
5. Freezing the phase-in of artificial values is just a political gimmick in an election year. Sorry, Roland, if you understood finance and actually owned a home, you would understand it better. A smaller tax bite only comes from spending less, not budgetary smoke and mirrors designed to mislead taxpayers. It most certainly wasn't done because the city has any intention of lowering our taxes by trying to ascertain the real value of our homes which I can tell you are easily 35% less than 2006.
6. The fundamental problems with this budget remains the same as they have for some time - crippling and growing debt that sucks $65 million a year out of the city; an enormous school budget that despite declining enrollment and lackluster performance continues to grow; a city workforce of over 5,000 with accumulating pensions and healthcare that are unpaid for; and protection of the status quo and the sacred cows. Change these, you've done something. Building a catch basin does nothing.
7. As long as you have a NH BOA controlled by cowards and the timid; when you have people who are more interested in group think, being seduced by power, and a penchant for intellectual laziness; when you have the NH BOA unprepared, incapable, unwilling or all of the above, for the rigors of questioning and prodding authority, you will see common sense and true democracy suffer. Make no mistake, we are suffering big time and it's the direct result of people who pretend to be leaders, but are actually part of the bucket brigade of followers, foot soldiers and waterboys.
Posted by: FacChek | May 8, 2009 10:15 PM
Why am I not surprised...
This committee was commissioned to research a seven section, more than 250 page budget document, packed with $614.892.602M of pork fat and come up with recommendations for cuts in less than four months.
What they discovered is that this process is flawed which makes meaningful improvements impossible.
More-over, to expect this crew of "Rubber stamping guardians of the OK Corral".........
... to endorse that which they themselves have refused to attempt in the last three budget years,
Speaks loudly for itself.
Don't get caught up in this tax freeze crap, saves you money, F that,,, it merely postpones the inevitable into 2012, just in time for the real estate market to recover, assess us higher, and blame it on the state and the city hired assessment company. A freeze does not postpone your obligation to pay, it re-imposes your obligation into the next year, when your personal financial circumstances could be worse.
The excuses Sandman, Lemar and Shah provide here for failing to consider what was proposed,is just ole fashion insulting.
As city Hall Watch opines:
"To have spent many hours across several months as I've done for several years, watching the Finance Committee flip through the budget book, ask mostly unintelligent, uninformed, and unimportant questions about inconsequential matters would have been a waste of time, monumentally frustrating" I add...
and just plain stupid to continue in that foley.
Carl Goldfield said that this board would be a proactive board in behalf of New Haven taxpayers.
You can clearly see the outcome of that strenuous and arduous, effort in pro-activity.
With their effort in behalf of taxpayers, why do we need aldermen at all?
Heck, Mr. Magoo can can dredge the lagoon...!!!
Posted by: robn | May 9, 2009 10:10 AM
You make a very valid distinction between income (taxation) and expense (budget). I agree that we could be more disciplined for the latter.
However perplexing the reval delay might be (I agree that this is more postponement than solution) there are some valid reasons to do so...mostly anticipating smooth out period for the economy and some serious structural reconsideration by our governing officials:
1 ) From the get go the reval was a bone crusher for homeowners and some homeowners may be at a tipping point in an already stressed economy.
2) As we see now, the reval was based upon peak residential prices (your note recognizes this).
3) A fundamental flaw in property taxation (which should be addressed in Hartford) is the lack of distinction between commercial and residential property...taxing residential as an exploitable asset creates a vicious cycle of market crests and troughs. This only benefits flippers and Realtors.
Posted by: igornaceisbliss | May 11, 2009 4:13 PM
Many members of the Board were initially resentful of the appointment of the blue ribbon panel. They felt it encroached on their authority and unnecessarily duplicated their own efforts. The panel was also exhausting an already hard- working budget office with meetings and requests for information.
It was only after the panel had been at it for a while and it became clear that the panel members were basically learning what the alders already knew (that the budget is basically non-discretionary and not all that wasteful at least if you want fully manned firehouses and reasonably fast police response) that it dawned on them that the blue ribbon panel was a blessing in disguise. After a lot of prior criticism from some of the same panel members about what the alders should be doing, on closer examination the panel members themselves couldn't seem to find any "wonder cuts". What had been perceived as an attack became a shield.
Maybe City Hall Watch should quit watching and actually do something, like affording the City the benefit of his or her wisdom as to how exactly the City can unilaterally slash the budget without the consent of the unions or making devastating service cuts? Or perhaps City Hall Watch might run for office and take the heat when the little old ladies from Dixwell come out to defend (as they should) their library branch or those from Buena Vista for their elderly center.
Also please note that the vote, for approval of the Mayor's budget by the finance committee, was unanimous representing all factions on the Board.
Posted by: Tim Holahan | May 12, 2009 2:52 PM
Responding to a couple of the points raised:
Whom We Spoke For
In our comments about the revaluation Richter and I were presenting our own points of view only. I think we made that clear at this hearing and at the previous hearing (3/11) as well. The only statements from the panel are the recommendations, which are passed by majority vote. Everything else is commentary by individuals.
Who's on the Panel
The panel is composed of seven citizens, two alders (Allan Brison and Charles Blango), and the Controller and Budget Director. I don't whether anyone on the panel holds commercial property. My guess would be no, but I could be wrong. I believe that a significant majority of the panelists are homeowners.
Why Couldn't We "Find Cuts"?
I don't believe it's accurate to say that we "couldn't find any cuts". I didn't see our primary mission as looking for cuts, and I don't think other panelists did either. The Tweed airport issue was, I think, the area in which we dug deepest into spending details. The panel's recommendations and my comments on that issue can be read with the Independent's article.
It's true that many of the forces that determine the budget are beyond the direct control of the aldermen. That doesn't mean they don't have significant power. As I see it, they are not fulfilling their primary responsibility, which is oversight.
I may be wrong, but it looks to me as if the debts and unfunded liabilities the city has accumulated through decades of overspending and over-promising are nearing a dangerous level, one that will mean higher taxes, reduced services, and limited options for New Haven for many years to come.
I don't like to be gloomy, but I don't see how you can look at the pension and retiree healthcare numbers (about which there really isn't much debate) and come away with a different take.
If anyone sees it differently, please speak up.
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