DeStefano, lacking state money, focuses on crime

A day after the State Senate Appropriations Committee set aside less state funding for New Haven than anticipated in Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s proposed city budget, DeStefano remained focused on pitching his plans to target crime through city spending at his second community budget meeting.

About a dozen city residents gathered in the basement of St. Aedan’s Church on Thursday night for DeStefano’s presentation of his proposed budget for the 2009 fiscal year. DeStefano pointed to the need to up spending for public safety in light of the recent increases in shootings to fund a greater police presence and a prisoner-reentry program. But residents focused their questions on property taxes and the local effects of the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

The general funding budget is projected to be about $465 million, according to his presentation, with 15 percent focused on public safety, a 7.29-percent increase from the year before. Hiring 45 new police officers and 27 new firefighters and introducing programs to improve prisoner-reentry processes are among the primary expenditures designed to reduce crime levels.

“Typically, 80 percent of shooting and homicide suspects are either felons or on probation,” DeStefano said.

In addition, the vast majority of people released from prison have existing mental illnesses or substance abuse problems, DeStefano said. For this reason, the mayor said he plans to put more funding into the city’s probation program in order to break the cycle.

“We are victims of these people in one of two ways,” DeStefano said. “Either they commit crime, or they hurt the taxpayer.”

DeStefano also referenced his recent exchanges with Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the Department of Corrections on where the blame for New Haven’s crime falls — the state or the city — and how prisoner reentry in the city contributes to the problem.

At the meeting, he criticized the state for the limited number of released prisoner drop-off spots, one of which is in New Haven, but acknowledged that the city perpetuates the problem by not turning the former prisoners away.

DeStefano said he hopes to use the increased funding to strengthen probation and prisoner-reentry services.

To coincide with his public-safety goals, DeStefano said he also plans to devote more energy to New Haven’s youth and to continuing economic improvements within the city.

The budget’s plan for economic growth allocates $1.2 million to improvement of commercial districts and provides for an Economic Development Corporation, to be funded by Yale. The University will also be involved in staffing this corporation, intended to bring more businesses to the area.

But all of these efforts may be foiled if the state does not provide enough funding.

“We made assumptions that may prove to be wrong,” DeStefano conceded.

Because hospitals and colleges are tax-exempt in Connecticut, New Haven relies for much of its funding on the Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT, reimbursement program funded by the state. While cities frequently do not receive as much money as they think they are entitled to under the PILOT program, the State Senate Appropriations Committee left out $10 million of the funds that DeStefano’s budget anticipates.

“Other towns put in tax-exempt property [this year],” he said, adding that the state cannot afford to reimburse all tax-exempt properties around the state. “Our piece of the pie got smaller.”

But in a question-and-answer session at the end, city residents in attendance were mainly concerned with the budget’s impact on the housing crisis and current property tax rates.

“The [property tax] rate increase seems so tied to budget increases,” resident Greg Dildine said to DeStefano. “How does the property tax compare to other places?”

The mayor acknowledged that the rate is higher in New Haven than in neighboring areas but argued that the city needs the revenue.

“It affects a minority of taxpayers,” DeStefano said.

Tim Holahan ’92 asked the mayor how the national sub-prime mortgage crisis might affect the city.

“We have the second-highest number of sub-prime loans in the state,” DeStefano said. “I can’t conceive that if we see these foreclosures, that that won’t affect the [tax] collection rate.”

But the mayor said his real fear is less about taxes than about the possibility of neighborhood disintegration.

“We get a block that gets three of these [foreclosures],” DeStefano said. “The local banks don’t have a property management project. It becomes abandoned.”

The third of the four community budget meetings will be held at 6 p.m. on April 9 in Pilgrim Church Hall on Grand Avenue.

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