City residents speak out against budget increase

City residents packed Thursday night’s Board of Aldermen Finance Committee meeting to speak out against the Mayor’s proposed budget, some blaming the University for not doing more to give back to the city.

The $445.2 million budget, unveiled by Mayor John DeStefano last month, increases city spending in 2007-2008 by 7.1 percent, or $29.5 million, over last year’s budget. But citizens who spoke at the heavily attended meeting said the city’s residents, many of whom are already stretched to make ends meet, cannot afford to pay for an increased budget, especially in light of the tax hit many will face because of upcoming property revaluations.

A “charged crowd,” as Finance Committee Chairman and Ward 26 Alderman Sergio Rodriguez called it, filled the aldermanic chambers to capacity and loudly applauded after every speech opposing the budget. More than 50 residents attended, and nearly all spoke out against DeStefano’s proposal.

Bjorn Akselsen, a self-described “tax and spend liberal” who said he rarely gets involved in city politics, said he was compelled to come testify because he feared the city’s steadily increasing budget would erode New Haven’s middle class by forcing residents to leave the city.

“I think it’s time to ask if our residents can take that burden,” Akselsen said.

Some residents who spoke also called on Yale to increase its voluntary contribution to the city, especially considering the large swath of tax-exempt property the University possesses.

Wendy Hamilton, a Wooster Square resident and a member of Fight the Hike, a group that opposes the budget in addition to United Illuminating’s recent rate hike, said the University needs to do more to help the “ghetto” that surrounds it. Despite its enormous endowment, the University spends more money advertising its supposed community support than it does on actually giving back to New Haven, Hamilton said.

“They give us chump change,” she said, drawing one of the night’s loudest rounds of applause. “Why can’t they share a little bit more with us?”

The University pays more than $10 million to the city annually in taxes, voluntary payments and fees, according to the Office of New Haven and State Affairs.

Many residents criticized the city’s subsidizing of what they called the “worthless” Tweed Airport, although several local business leaders spoke in favor of it. Other complaints centered on increased spending for police and fire services as well as education.

David Cameron, an East Rock resident and the director of undergraduate studies for the Yale Political Science department, said the combined effect of property revaluations and taxes due to the increased budget will cause the city to lose even more residents than it is already losing. And if for no other reason than because DeStefano tacked on the Board of Education’s budgetary request without making any alterations to it, the Board should send the proposed budget back to the Mayor for further scrutiny, Cameron said.

“Not even Donald Rumsfeld got everything he wanted from George Bush,” he said.

The budget increases are largely the result of the city’s hiring of 14 new police officers, along with an extra $6.7 million for debt service and a $3.3 million increase in medical benefits for city employees. City officials have said the increases will be covered by $12 million in tax revenue, an additional $15 million in state funding and $8.2 million in new revenue from building permits.

Residents suggested a range of solutions for the board and the Mayor to consider in reducing the budget. Some suggested budget increases be restricted to the rate of inflation, while others suggested forcing departments to cut costs by improving efficiency, or curtailing or delaying the city’s ambitious school construction program.

Another resident, David Sepulveda, said the city has no right to increase its budget unless such an increase is commensurate to the quality of life in New Haven. In recent months, police arrested two felons in his backyard, and they arrested another suspected criminal in his front yard the following week, he said — and crime and increasing taxes are not an attractive mix.

Other proposals to alleviate the budget were more radical. One resident suggested that the city save money by delegating police protection of the downtown area to the Yale Police Department. The speaker also proposed replacing police officers with security guards who could respond to “mundane” calls rather than sending multiple police and fire vehicles in response to individual 911 calls. Another resident said, having observed city Public Works employees repaving his street, that the city could simply save money by instructing them to work faster.

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