For New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., violence reduction and education continue to be the city’s highest priorities.
Echoing the concerns and priorities he has laid out in previous public forums this year, DeStefano highlighted the need to focus on crime reduction, schools and securing state funding at his fourth and final community budget meeting Thursday evening at Nathan Hale School. Although the approximately 30 residents in attendance did not express strong opinions about the presentation, they raised questions about a myriad of issues, ranging from Tweed New Haven Airport construction to environmental concerns to plans for the former site of the Coliseum.
DeStefano’s presentation attempted to answer two questions about the budget: What accounts for fluctuations in funding and what are its top priorities this year? He began with an overview of New Haven’s demographics and economic dynamics.
The city’s largest expenditures go towards education, DeStefano said. Education, he argued, may play a crucial role in ensuring the city’s economic health.
“One of the ways to keep middle-income families is to build schools that they can use,” the mayor said.
DeStefano repeatedly underscored the city’s dependence on state funding. The state’s tax structure, he said, relies on property tax heavily over income and sales tax.
“We remain very much centered on wealth as based on one thing, which is property,” he said.
But New Haven is at a disadvantage, DeStefano said, because of its large amount of tax-exempt property. Forty-two percent of New Haven property is tax exempt, he said, compared to 9 percent in neighboring Woodbridge. The state provides money to the city to make up for its tax-exempt property — which includes hospitals and universities such as Yale — through the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, but DeStefano maintained that the state has been tight-fisted with PILOT funds this year.
“The state, in order to balance its budget, is keeping more of this money,” DeStefano said. “When the state of Connecticut gets a cold, we get very sick.”
In early April, the state Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee approved a $102.7 million package to fund PILOT that would fill a $10 million hole in New Haven’s budget for the coming fiscal year created when the Appropriations Committee declined to provide as much state money as DeStefano had requested. But the measure — the funding for which would come from a delivery tax on parcel services such as Federal Express and the sale of abandoned properties — faces an uncertain future in the full legislature, with many legislators on both sides of the aisle saying that a tax hike is not likely this year.
DeStefano then laid out his priorities for next year’s budget. At the top of the list was crime reduction. The largest contributor to New Haven’s crime problem, he said, is the influx of criminals being released into the city from state prisons.
“When you discharge people into the community without a job, without a place to live, and they are just literally dropped off, it is like dropping a bomb that is just ticking and ticking,” he said. “You can’t save everybody, but we can do more. Dealing with this remains a principle issue for me for next year.”
In an effort to address the problem, the budget includes money for 45 new police officers, 27 new firefighters and efforts to ameliorate prison-re-entry systems.
In the calm question-and-answer session afterwards, one woman asked for more information about the drain in state funding.
“Where’s it going?” she asked. “What can our city do to get it back?”
The mayor pointed to flaws in the Medicaid system and inefficiencies in the state Department of Corrections as costing the state unnecessary tax dollars. He emphasized that citizens should petition state legislators to ensure that more tax dollars are put back into the community.
Another woman in attendance asked about the city’s efforts at environmental sustainability. DeStefano agreed that the environment should be a priority, although he had not mentioned it earlier in his presentation.
“Our recycling is extremely poor,” he said. “We absolutely should double or triple the amount of recycling out of the waste stream and then we’ll get paid rather than pay to have the waste taken away.”
The most animated questioning came from a man who argued that the city should replace the old Coliseum — an arena that was demolished in January 2007 — with another arena, rather than the mixed-use developments currently being considered by the city.
DeStefano said he would not be opposed to a new arena but that the city has other financial priorities.