Mayor John DeStefano Jr. used to hang a picture of his father on the door to his office overlooking the New Haven Green.
In the picture, John DeStefano Sr., a former New Haven Police Department officer, is walking a picket line in his NHPD uniform. So the sight of more than 200 enraged police officers, some of them on duty, chanting “Bring them back!” as they marched in uniform towards City Hall to protest of his Feb. 17 decision to lay off 16 of them troubled DeStefano as more than just an administrative matter.
That day marked the end of 96 city jobs and the boiling over of labor tensions that had been brewing in New Haven for months. A mix of nationwide economic recession and the rising costs of city employee benefits have strained the city’s budget at the expense of taxpayers, who have seen their property taxes go up in three of the past four years. With the city $5.5 million in the red for the fiscal year ending June 30 and facing a gap several times larger in the next fiscal year, DeStefano decided he could not strike another deal to postpone pain.
“There will be lots of reactions to today’s choices,” DeStefano said at a solemn press conference announcing the layoffs. “But one of them cannot be surprise.”
In the past month, mayors and union leaders signed historic concession agreements saving millions of dollars in Boston and Providence, whose fiscal challenges are similar to New Haven’s. In an attempt to right the city’s fiscal ship, DeStefano is caught between politically active city unions protecting their members’ benefits and taxpayers who threaten to vote him out of office if he raises their property taxes — already the second-highest in the state — yet again. As he prepares for a record ninth re-election campaign, the city’s fiscal future — and DeStefano’s political survival—may depend on his success.
ROLLING BACK HISTORY
The layoffs in February, DeStefano said in an interview last week, were made necessary by the intransigence of city unions in making concessions on their benefits. The “Pac-Man of the city budget,” as DeStefano likes to call them, health benefits and pensions for city employees have risen from 12 to 22 percent of the city’s expenditures in the past decade.
“It’s no secret that what’s paying for these benefit and pension increases is a bunch of layoffs in February, a bunch more coming this summer, and a lot of program cuts,” DeStefano said.
Expectations were different when his father was a New Haven cop, he said. The average retiree from the police department last year was 48 years old and left with a $74,000 annual pension. Some earn pensions greater than their salaries, and many take second jobs while collecting pensions.
DeStefano’s father was not considering retiring when he died at 57, DeStefano said. “It just wouldn’t have occurred to him,” he said.
But even as DeStefano characterizes the benefits and pensions in police and other city contracts as unsustainable, he must contend with his own role at the other end of the negotiation table. As the city’s longest-serving mayor, he has signed contracts with ever more generous benefits packages for city employees for the past 18 years.
“It’s like water at the beach: you start at your ankles, then you’re at your knees, and then you’re in over your head,” he said. “A series of small decisions got us here.”
Still, the city should not close its budget gap on the backs of hardworking people, said police union president Sgt. Louis Cavaliere, who has been a New Haven police officer since DeStefano was 13 years old.
“How could you be so cruel about our livelihoods?” Cavaliere asked.
As police officers marched on City Hall in February to protest the first layoffs that hit the department in four decades, Cavaliere gained notoriety for calling on New Haven residents to arm themselves for protection.
Those comments were “irresponsible and beneath those who make them,” DeStefano shot back at a press conference shortly after rejecting a last-ditch effort by the police union to postpone the layoffs.
The barbs flying between the mayor’s office and the police union had ceased to be solely a matter of union concessions. The fight had become personal: between the son of a union cop and a union no longer willing to respect one of their own.
A NATIONAL PHENOMENON
Hardly a historical enemy of unions, DeStefano does not shy from his pro-labor credentials.
“You won’t find a more labor-friendly mayor in Connecticut,” he said after taking heat about layoffs from East Shore residents at St. Bernadette’s Catholic church, where he went to elementary school.
He is quick to point out that he brokered a 2004 contract settlement between the University and the Yale Police Department union. Under his watch in 1997, New Haven became the first city in the state to mandate a “living wage” for its employees and workers on city contracts, providing a floor $4 higher than the state’s minimum hourly wage.
DeStefano is just one player in a nationwide phenomenon: Democratic politicians with a history of union support are now making demands of their former allies to keep budgets from exploding.
Gov. Dannel Malloy, who lost to DeStefano in a 2006 gubernatorial primary, is in ongoing negotiations with state unions to try to fill nearly a third of the state’s projected $3.2 billion budget deficit with labor savings. After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Malloy narrowly defeat Republican Tom Foley, the state’s 45,000 employees are being asked to give $2 billion over the next two years in concessions.
Meanwhile in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2011-’12 budget includes $450 million in concessions from state employees.
The nationwide battle over public employee compensation reached a fever pitch when Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin introduced a bill in February that would strip the state’s unions of collective bargaining rights in addition to financial concessions. Thousands of protestors rallied for days outside the state capitol in Madison, inspiring rallies across the country in solidarity with Wisconsin workers.
But New Haven residents are smart enough to distinguish New Haven from Wisconsin, DeStefano said. The city is simply seeking to preserve its future fiscal health by bringing employee health care and pension plans more in line with what the average New Haven resident has, he said.
“Unsustainable healthcare and pensions are cost drivers that are blowing up budgets across the country,” said Ward 29 Alderman and Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield.
Far from wanting to strip unions of their rights, DeStefano said, he believes philosophically in the need for collective bargaining.
“Unions provide a floor of wage and benefit security that promotes social well being. That in turn promotes stronger communities overall,” he said.
But New Haven, just like cities and states nationwide, is suffering the effects of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, DeStefano said.
“All the contracts I’ve signed over the years were a reflection of the economic times in which they were executed,” he said. “The reality of why we’re here, even more than changed expectations, is the dramatically different financial position we’re in.”
In his father’s day, DeStefano said, public employee jobs were often seen as pathways to social and economic mobility. And while economic strains have chipped away at that mobility, he added, organized labor continues to do what it always has: promote conditions for workers.
“But I don’t think anyone thinks the bargain should be retirement at 48 with a $74,000 pension, do you? When I lose cops at 48 who have only worked 20 years, that creates a problem,” DeStefano said. “Something’s gotta give.”
HITTING THE STREETS
Friend or foe, labor groups have succeeded in creating a public perception that DeStefano is not sufficiently interested in protecting city workers. After DeStefano walked out on negotiations Feb. 5, union leaders have accused the mayor of not wanting to cooperate to save city jobs. Larry Dorman, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents five city unions, said negotiators offered $5 million of concessions to the city, a number city spokesman Adam Joseph disputed. Negotiators were not serious enough about coming up with savings for the city, he said.
Accusing him of “extorting” city workers, Larry Dorman said the mayor “does not like to be reminded that city workers are struggling to make ends meet.”
That message brought hundreds of protestors out to the New Haven Green on March 14 for a rally headlined by national civil rights figure Al Sharpton.
“We will stay in the streets until they come to the table,” Sharpton said.
But the largest public display of dissatisfaction with DeStefano’s handling of the city’s fiscal problems came March 30, when approximately one thousand people protested in solidarity with city workers. Known as the “We Are One” rally, the event was not targeted at DeStefano in particular, but rather at city halls and statehouses across the country where public employees are being laid off to cure recession-inflamed budget ills. Organizers from church congregations, labor unions, and student activist groups said they hoped the rally would be the beginning of a grassroots movement demanding good jobs for New Haven residents.
But despite claims that the rally was apolitical, some protestors in a throng stretching from City Hall to Silliman College carried signs saying “Privatize DeStefano.”
DeStefano said he is not concerned by the recent wave of protests in the city: if he had raised taxes again to avoid layoffs, the public outcry would have been much worse. Tax hikes, he said, would give critics a much more potent rallying cry against City Hall.
“When I got elected, the East Shore was trying to secede from the city because of taxes,” he said. “I pay attention to the dogs that are barking but also to the dogs that aren’t barking.”
“This room would be packed if I raised taxes,” he told residents in his “community budget presentation” at St. Bernadette’s Church. Last year’s city budget included a 4 percent property tax increase.
DeStefano emphasized that he has not had an antagonistic relationship with the city’s largest union: the New Haven Federation of Teachers.
By a vote of 842 to 39, the teachers’ union approved a contract in 2009 that gave the city considerable latitude in its school reform efforts. Lauded as a “breakthrough” in the national education reform movement, the contract strengthened performance evaluations and reduced job protections for teachers while giving them a greater voice in the city’s reform efforts.
Teachers are not safe from the city’s budget axe, however. While only five teachers lost their jobs in the 42 position eliminations that hit the Board of Education in February, this summer could see as many 70 additional layoffs in the schools.
A BATTLE FORESHADOWED
As most city unions’ contracts do not expire until next year, the true fight over concessions has yet to begin. But an ongoing battle over the privatization of school custodians may provide a clue to what the coming year’s concession negotiations will look like.
A state-appointed arbitrator will determine whether the city can go through with the privatization plan, which it believes will save up to $8 million. Under a proposed contract with GCA Services, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based company, many of the city’s 186 full-time school custodians would become part-time, and all would see reduced benefits and a significant pay cut.
Dorman said the plan is an effort by DeStefano to “destroy jobs and push workers into poverty.”
While the custodians’ contract was the first to enter the state arbitration process, Kevin Murphy, lead negotiator for the city’s AFSCME unions, said the city’s other 12 union contracts were all likely to follow.
The mayor is “trying to inflict pain rather than work with us,” Dorman said, adding that DeStefano has rejected substantial concessionoffers by the custodians. The mayor is “manufacturing a crisis” as a pretext for privatization, Dorman said.
But the city needs to ask, “What is the most cost-effective way to provide the public with a service?” DeStefano said. “It gets back down to ‘Guys, what do we propose to do about this?’”
The city also needs to set priorities: DeStefano told Sandy Bohannon, the wife of a New Haven custodian, that he would rather privatize custodians than lay off more teachers.
Raising property taxes is simply not an option, DeStefano added.
A BALANCED BUDGET?
But some residents are already worrying that DeStefano will not be able to fulfill that pledge.
The balance of the mayor’s budget relies on many assumptions about revenue, many of which are by no means certain. Fearing that some combination of privatization being rejected, the state not fulfilling its promise of constant municipal aid, and the city’s proposed stormwater authority not passing the Board of Aldermen some believe the city will be forced to raise taxes.
“This is not a balanced budget right now — it has hopes and gaps that could be as much as $15 million,” said Jeffrey Kerekes, a representative of New Haven Citizens Action Network, a budget monitoring group. “You have a tough job ahead of you if you don’t want to have another tax increase,” he told aldermen on the Finance Committee at a public hearing last month.
Ed Rodriguez, testifying at a public budget hearing April 12 in Fair Haven, said he simply could not afford to pay any more in taxes than he does now. A senior citizen living on fixed income from the federal government, Rodriguez doubted whether he could continue to afford living in the city if his property taxes increased as the value of his home decreased.
East Rock resident and member of the Financial Review and Audit Commission Christine Bishop said the budget does not reflect enough urgency in avoiding tax cuts. The budget “went in for a trim, not a haircut,” she said.
Taxpayers are not a politically organized group, said Cedar Hill resident Rebecca Turcio, but yet another property tax increase would have disastrous consequences for the city.
“Our worst neighborhoods are going to empty out and get worse,” Turcio said. “You want to keep homeowners in the city—those are the people that active in the community, those $30,000 paycheck people who can still afford a home in New Haven.”
Turcio criticized the mayor’s layoffs for not reaching far enough into the upper levels of City Hall’s payroll. Echoing the sentiments of residents and city employees alike, Turcio said DeStefano should have laid people off “top down, not bottom up.”
“Does the assistant of the assistant of the assistant need an assistant?” Turcio asked to loud applause at the public hearing, attended by about thirty residents at the Wilbur Cross High School auditorium.
While the average salary of a city employee is currently $57,000 plus benefits, the average person laid off in February made just $36,000, said Ward 30 Alderman Darnell Goldson.
CUTTING ‘ON THE BACKS OF CHILDREN’
In addition to the disproportionate laying off of lower-paid workers, many residents have criticized the mayor’s proposed cuts for the communities they impact.
Three of the city’s 32 school nurses and 12 library employees were laid off in February to fill a budget gap in the fiscal year ending June 30.
Stretching 29 city’s school nurses across 55 schools not only compromises the quality of care children receive, but makes the possibility of an avoidable medical disaster more likely, six nurses told aldermen at the hearing at Wilbur Cross.
“I’m not trying to scare you,” said Jennifer Caren, a laid-off nurse, “but someone is going to get hurt, and then we’re going to ask how this could happen.”
After the meeting, Goldfield said while he understood the nurses’ concerns, he was unsure anything could be done to act on them within the budget’s immediate constraints. In a tone that spoke to the cheerlessness of the legislative task of apportioning misery, Goldfield said some might argue preserving libraries is equally essential as a budgetary priority.
Just a week later at a public hearing at Fair Haven Middle School, Goldfield was proven right.
Cuts to libraries—none of which are now open on weekends except the main branch—threaten schoolchildren’s ability to succeed by depriving them of a place to study, several speakers said at a finance committee hearing. But equally importantly, they said, libraries provide a safe, nurturing space for residents in communities where the threat of gun violence is pervasive.
“I don’t understand how you can cut on the backs of our children,” said Newhallville resident Ruby White, echoing a theme from the school nurse’s outcry a week earlier.
In his office, DeStefano sounded an ominous note: “We’re not done cutting services in the city of New Haven, to be quite honest.”
But the 11 percent cut to the libraries’ budget would be among the first to be considered for reversal when the city’s fiscal climate improves, said Chief Administrative Officer Robert Smuts ’01.
“There are cuts that we’ve made that are good, but the cuts with libraries are ones we should revisit,” Smuts said. “We could be doing so much for the community if we could keep libraries open more.”
A FATEFUL TASK
Having grown accustomed to the fierce debates that characterize the annual ritual of budget season at City Hall, DeStefano has long anticipated the difficulty of the coming fiscal fights. But, at least in theory, he said the task is simple: the budget must be balanced in a fashion that does not drive up property taxes or unacceptably diminish services in the city.
In order achieve that goal, DeStefano said, leadership will be required not just of him, but also the union leaders at the other end of the table. So far, he said, union leaders have had an “anyone but me” mentality and acted “like someone who has gotten a bad piece of news and is trying to avoid rationally dealing with it.”
“Leadership is not just sitting in a chair and making a deal,” DeStefano said. “It’s going back to your members and educating them and defining reasonable expectations—it can be an unpleasant process with a lot of yelling.”
Meanwhile, DeStefano has suffered a crisis of confidence among union leaders, who say he is no longer a credible partner in negotiatons.
“He isn’t negotiating, he’s threatening and extorting and laying off workers,” Dorman said.
In navigating the city’s budget between recession-drained taxpayers who expect basic city services and unions trying to protect hard-won benefits, DeStefano’s fiscal legacy, as well as his political life, is on the line.
For his part, though, DeStefano said he does not worry that confrontations with the city’s unions will threaten his election to a record tenth term.
At least two candidates have already declared their intention to oppose him in this fall’s election: civil rights activist and former city attorney Clifton Graves and former Hill alderman Tony Dawson. Graves has formed an exploratory committee to allow him to start raising campaign money.
It is too early to tell whether either candidate will capitalize on the political backlash created by layoffs, service cuts and labor tensions. Graves said his campaign will not be “anti-DeStefano,” but rather “pro-New Haven.”
But it appears clear that after 18 years without losing more than a third of the vote to a challenger, DeStefano faces the test of his political career in the coming budget battles. Nearly two decades of a DeStefano strongly allied to labor have given way to a DeStefano ready to take them head on.
“This is not a typical time,” DeStefano said, adding in what has become a familiar refrain, “This is a case of avoiding the classic definition of insanity: doing the same thing again and expecting different results.”