Mayor talks budget to neighbors

New Haven Mayor John Destefano Jr. came under fire from East Shore residents on Thursday over budget issues.
New Haven Mayor John Destefano Jr. came under fire from East Shore residents on Thursday over budget issues. Photo by Alon Harish.

Residents of Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s native East Shore neighborhood did not go easy on him at a budget hearing Thursday night.

At St. Bernadette’s Church, home to DeStefano’s Catholic elementary school, the mayor took questions from a crowd of about 40 residents, some of whom he has known since childhood. Echoing themes of Wednesday’s march on City Hall, residents expressed concerns that the mayor’s fiscal strategy was unfair to city workers and that the city in general is headed in the wrong direction.

“This used to be one beautiful city, but it’s going down the drain,” said Frank Giuliano, who has lived in New Haven for over 80 years.

Of particular concern to Giuliano and several others in the audience who spoke Thursday night was the mayor’s battle with the school custodial workers’ union. As the city heads to a state arbitrator to settle contract negotiations, DeStefano has made it clear that he will seek to privatize the custodial services if they do not agree to concessions.

The city estimates privatization will save $7 million, but several residents implored DeStefano not to pursue it.

Sandy Bohannon, the wife of a New Haven custodian, said bringing in private contractors to clean the schools would jeopardize students. The custodians currently working in the city’s schools have earned students’ trust in a way contractors could not, she said.

All private contractors would have to pass a background check to work in the city’s schools, DeStefano responded, and none would come from out of state.

Sitting next to her husband Scott, Bohannon’s voice quivered as she asked how DeStefano, the son of a New Haven police officer, could threaten the livelihoods of almost 180 New Haven custodians.

“I’ve lived in New Haven 51 years, and I don’t want to leave,” Scott Bohannon said.

But hiring private contractors for cleaning services is nothing new, DeStefano said. Every city building is cleaned by private workers except for the schools.

DeStefano admitted to the Bohannons that he would rather risk laying off custodians than lose more teachers to budget cuts. Sixty to 70 Board of Education layoffs are coming this summer, he said, on top of the 42 he announced in February.

“Something’s gotta give,” DeStefano said. “Don’t expect anyone to be a magician here.”

DeStefano said he could have avoided confronting the issue of city employee pensions by borrowing money or “cutting a deal,” but doing so would only make the city’s fiscal future darker.

“I live here too, my dad was a cop in this city, my mom was a hairdresser in this city,” he said. “I care about this city like all of you do.”

Despite the city’s grim financial outlook, DeStefano said, massive layoffs can still be avoided if all city employees agree to modest sacrifices.

The custodial workers, for example, could avoid privatization if they agreed to changes to rules governing where they can be asked to work, how much they contribute towards their benefits, and how their pensions are calculated.

Some contracts could even see pay raises in their second and third years, DeStefano said, if accompanied by concessions on benefits. Health care and pension benefits have risen from 12 to 22 percent of the city’s budget in the last ten years.

“We have a financial problem, but it’s not so serious that we have to be like Sherman marching on Atlanta burning everything down,” DeStefano said. “If everyone does a little bit, we can all get through this together.”

The city’s fiscal outlook may worsen dramatically, though, if Gov. Dannel Malloy does not achieve his target of $1 billion in concessions from state employees this year, DeStefano said. If he does not, the state’s aid to the city may be one of the first items cut in the state budget.

Malloy’s goal on labor concessions is “ambitious,” DeStefano said. Malloy has already begun drafting a “Plan B” budget in case the mayor’s doubts prove well founded.

City spokesman Adam Joseph said the mayor will conduct another “community budget presentation” in April, though a date and place have not yet been set.

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