While criticizing the inaction of state government and the federal government’s proposed budget cuts, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. offered a focused agenda for the upcoming year in Monday night’s State of the City address, identifying three major challenges facing the city and proposing a host of methods to confront them.
After praising Elm City residents for a compassionate response to victims of Hurricane Katrina and remarking on some of the city’s successes in battling homelessness and reducing energy costs, DeStefano said that improving public safety, increasing the stock of affordable housing, and ensuring the city’s financial stability are the city’s three major tasks for this year.
The mayor said New Haven will have to overcome a slight increase in the violent crime rate as well as rapidly rising housing prices that threaten the affordability of New Haven homes, potentially squeezing out first-time homebuyers. DeStefano also said the city will have to contend with shrinking support from the federal and state government, as the federal government cuts funding for Medicare, Medicaid, and other services.
“The challenge comes down to our willingness to work together, to sacrifice for one another,” DeStefano said. “We have a game plan that will keep us growing, and not just so we get by, but so we can be the best of places.”
The mayor ended his speech by calling for a speedy resolution to the controversy surrounding the proposed construction of the Yale-New Haven Hospital Cancer Center. Representatives of both the hospital and Service Employees International Union, which is trying to unionize workers at the hospital, said they looked forward to working out a compromise.
To continue increasing its tax revenue, DeStefano suggested that the city expand downtown’s concentrated mixed-use development. Under his tenure, the city has already undertaken an expansive downtown redevelopment plan with the impending demolition of the New Haven Coliseum and the downtown relocation of Long Wharf Theater and Gateway Community College.
“You have a lot of under-utilized space that’s not dense enough,” said Tony Bialecki, the city’s deputy director of economic development.
Bialecki said the city is trying to develop more housing and retail in neighborhoods adjacent to, but not at the heart of, downtown, such as Long Wharf and the area near Yale-New Haven. He said he hears often from private developers interested in converting New Haven’s old factories into lofts.
Although the mayor had not decided to discuss the cancer center until shortly before delivering his speech, he said he ultimately chose to address the issue because he thought the parties involved in the development needed to see that compromise was possible and necessary.
“I’m not interested in debating who’s right and who’s wrong,” DeStefano said. “It’s time for compromise on this issue. This is not a case where there’s going to be a winner or a loser … Everybody’s going to win, or everybody’s going to lose.”
Both Vincent Petrini, a spokesman for Yale-New Haven, and Bill Meyerson, spokesman for SEIU, said they support the mayor’s call for a timely vote on unionization and for good-faith negotiations.
Ward 9 Alderwoman Elizabeth Addonizio GRD ’06 said the mayor’s speech was “frank and honest and realistic” in its assessment of the challenges the city faces, particularly as funds from the federal and state governments decrease. In his speech, the mayor said that last year the state reimbursed the city $14.3 million less than it should have under state statutes through the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, under which the state pays for some of what the city loses in taxes unpaid by non-profit institutions. The mayor has also criticized the federal government for cuts in funding for housing development programs, such as Community Development Block Grants, upon which New Haven relies.
“He put the numbers up there … and he clearly showed that federal money to municipalities like New Haven has drastically decreased,” Addonizio said. “We’re not getting the money that we got under the Clinton administration. We have as a city had to pick up that slack, and we’re really feeling the effects of that.”
Some aldermen and citizens who heard the speech, however, said they found it less than comprehensive, both in terms of how much detail it offered, and in terms of the subjects DeStefano chose to address.
“I’m looking forward to the details,” Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez said. “As they say, the devil’s in the details.”
Other city residents who heard the speech questioned why the mayor did not speak more about the state of public education in the city, considering that only a minority of New Haven’s students are able to pass all of the state mastery tests each year, they said.
Shortly before delivering his State of the City address, the mayor had presented checks of over $2,400, earmarked for rent money, to the two remaining families who evacuated New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and who now have children enrolled in New Haven public schools. The money had been raised in an autumn fundraising drive by New Haven public school students, the mayor said.
One of the women, Teresa Morrison, who now works for Yale Dining Services, said she was impressed by the compassion and help extended to her by the New Haven community.
“We do want to stay in New Haven,” she said. “People just opened up and took us in and really made us feel at home.”