On November 14, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. will deliver a Chubb Fellowship lecture in the Yale Law School Auditorium. He will likely speak about his long-term plans for New Haven, including the new “Promise” scholarships recently announced by the University.
The New Haven Promise program has received national attention, with the media heralding DeStefano as a visionary who will finally, after 16 years in office, reverse New Haven’s decline in school performance.
In two previous columns, I criticized DeStefano’s current school reforms and New Haven Promise. Here, I suggest five steps the mayor could announce to deserve the praise pundits have showered upon him.
First, DeStefano needs to implement serious changes in New Haven’s schools. Administrators need to be able to fire poorly performing teachers in a timely manner. Teachers should be rewarded by a system of individual merit-based pay that encourages student excellence. School reform should not be developed secretly behind closed doors at Yale or City Hall, as was the case with New Haven Promise. We need public deliberation about what is best for New Haven’s youth — not a series of scripted press conferences.
Second, the mayor should push for lower property taxes. New Haven’s mill rate (amount of tax per $1,000 of property value) is twice that of surrounding towns such as Woodbridge, West Haven and Hamden. Businesses and residents leave New Haven as a result.
The tuition subsidies offered by New Haven Promise might bring back a few, marginal residents — those who will stomach sending their children to failing public schools and on to Connecticut universities. For many more, the thousands of dollars a year in extra property taxes make life and schooling in New Haven unaffordable.
Proponents of higher taxes point out that New Haven must provide expensive social services to respond to the needs of its large low-income population. While it is true that our city faces unique costs, it also enjoys unique economic benefits. Local shipping, for example, must pass through the New Haven Harbor, and Yale provides an unparalleled business resource.
The bottom line: Taxes drive businesses and jobs away from New Haven.
Third, New Haven’s taxes can’t be reduced without tackling New Haven’s rampant spending. Chief among the culprits are public sector contracts, which bleed taxpayers dry. Currently, the city spends over $60 million a year in medical benefits; municipal employees confront co-payments far lower than those paid by privately employed workers. Those same city workers retain expensive and outmoded defined-benefit pension plans instead of the defined-contribution (401k) plans that are now the norm in the private sector.
Mayor DeStefano has publicly called for cuts in public sector compensation to school custodians. Unfortunately, he has not gone far enough, and still supports excessively high pay and benefit packages for them and other municipal workers, including fire personnel, police and teachers. The mayor employs feel-good rhetoric while not actually tackling the problem.
Similarly, DeStefano must press for a complete repeal of the living wage law in New Haven. I applaud the mayor for blocking Alderman Mike Jones’ ’11 ill-conceived proposal to raise the mandated wage to $14.67 an hour. However, $12 an hour, the current living wage, is still too high. It places an unsustainable burden on the city’s budget and private contractors. The living wage law sends the same message to prospective employers as the city’s high property taxes: stay out of New Haven. City residents without work consequently suffer.
Fourth, the mayor must stop making window-dressing budget cuts. In the past few years, he has defunded the overflow homeless shelter by $300,000, cut library hours, and eliminated a beloved Christmas tree on the green. These decisions, made under the guise of fiscal austerity, were meant to make DeStefano appear courageous. Instead, the mayor gutted the few public goods that the city actually provides well, while saving very little taxpayer money — a cynical and empty gesture. The mayor should put these services back into place and deal with the city’s fiscal problems seriously (via the steps mentioned above).
Finally, the mayor must oppose spurious infrastructure development. Take, for example, the recently re-announced train from New Haven to Springfield, Mass. There is no consumer demand for the project. It is a poorly designed boondoggle for the construction lobby and unions. In the city itself, similarly unnecessary projects —such as the recently built bridge near the train station — drain our public coffers.
Some critics may call me naive. The mayor, they will argue, cannot undertake these tough measures because of political constraints. However, across the country, politicians such as Democrat Cory Booker in Newark and Republican Chris Christie in New Jersey are making serious attempts to reform schools, taxes and budgets, defying exploitative interest groups and political pressure.
DeStefano is assured of reelection. He has been for almost my entire two-decade lifetime as a New Haven resident. His political security imposes both the moral obligation and the practical ability to carry out the measures necessary to turn New Haven around.
Please, Mayor DeStefano, stop the political grandstanding and undo the failed policies of your past 16 years.
Nathaniel Zelinsky is a sophomore in Davenport College.