New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. presented the city’s budget for the coming year yesterday, proposing an increase in property tax rates for the third consecutive year, but no major cuts in city services.
Projecting a slight increase in state aid, DeStefano said he did not expect the city, which has reduced its workforce by 278 jobs over the past year, to institute any additional layoffs or service cuts. But DeStefano said the city’s fiscal health is jeopardized by an overreliance on property taxes and called for legislative action in Hartford to reduce the burden on local residents.
Presenting graphs showing the city’s positive trends in fighting crime, improving test scores and reducing blight, DeStefano said his proposed budget, which applies to the fiscal year beginning in June, attempts to continue the work he has done over the first 10 years of his administration.
“The city’s direction over the last decade has been good, strong and positive,” said DeStefano, whose budget will now be reviewed by the Board of Aldermen. “This budget seeks to continue that by doing the basics well.”
These basics, DeStefano said, include the hiring of new training classes of police officers and fire fighters as well as a $3.5 million increase in funding for New Haven public schools. In addition, DeStefano said he hoped to maintain current funding for public works, summer recreation and library services — all of which have suffered cuts in recent years as the city has faced fiscal difficulties.
But DeStefano also said that while New Haven was keeping its spending under control, it faces a challenge in raising the necessary revenues to fund city services. While the mayor said he expected state aid — which accounts for just over half of the city’s budget — to increase by 2.2 percent, he said the city would need a 3.7 percent property tax increase to break even next year.
Yet while he proposed raising tax rates to their highest level since the 1996-1997 fiscal year, DeStefano said the city’s fiscal difficulties would continue to increase in the coming years. The Democratic mayor said the growth of nonprofit institutions like Yale and Southern Connecticut State University could leave over half of New Haven property tax-exempt, while he said a scheduled revaluation of properties next year could increase the average residential tax bill by as much as 15 percent.
Warning that next year’s budget might be the “most difficult of my administration,” DeStefano said he was lobbying the Connecticut General Assembly to delay the revaluation. In addition, the Board of Aldermen has established a Revenue Commission that is entrusted with exploring new ways of raising revenues.
But while DeStefano has long called for more extensive statewide property tax reform, he also conceded that the General Assembly was unlikely to pass any far-reaching measures this year. State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney said he was hopeful that the state would increase aid to New Haven, but he expressed doubt over whether the state could enact any structural changes with Republican Gov. John Rowland in office.
“In terms of fundamental reform, that depends on raising a great deal more money through the state income tax,” said Looney, a Democrat from New Haven. “I think that’s not going to happen under a Republican governor.”
Ward 4 Alderwoman Andrea Jackson-Brooks said she was concerned about the tax increase and believed the budget might need minor changes before it is passed by the Board of Aldermen.
“It needs some tweaking,” said Jackson-Brooks, who serves as vice chair of the Finance Committee. “I want to make sure that our citizens are getting the bang for their buck.”
A public hearing will be held on the budget later this month, with deliberations over the plan expected to begin in April.