NHFD applicant cap sparks controversy

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Photo by Brianne Bowen.

A new City Hall proposal to cap the number of resident and nonresident job applications to the New Haven Fire Department has community members up in arms.

Robert Smuts ’01, the city’s chief administrative officer, briefed the Board of Aldermen Thursday evening about his plan to limit the number of NHFD applications to 400 residents and 400 nonresidents for 45 entry-level spots. But several aldermen and James Rawlings SPH ’80, the president of the Greater New Haven National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the plan does not decrease out-of-town competition for jobs, but instead limits the number of local, taxpaying residents who can apply.

“It’s a question of social and economic justice,” Rawlings said. “There’s no question that everybody qualified in New Haven should be allowed to compete for these jobs; there should not be an artificial cap.”

The proposed limit on applications would prevent local applicants from being “swamped” by nonresidents seeking the positions, Smuts said in a written statement handed out to attendees.

Had his proposal been in effect in 2007, when the fire department’s last recruiting effort took place, Smuts said the NHFD would have hired more people from the city. Because only 257 applications out of the 1,306 received at that time came from the Elm City, none of the New Haven applicants would have been turned away, he added.

Smuts’ explanation did not satisfy Rawlings, who said he wanted 100 percent of applications to be from local residents. Limiting residents’ job opportunities hits urban minorities particularly hard, he said, especially because the unemployment rate among this demographic in New Haven is already higher than 25 percent.

“There’s no reason why those who are paying the taxes don’t have total access to the jobs,” he said, adding that capping job opportunities for locals will also hurt the city’s tax base.

Several aldermen shared Rawlings’ sentiments, including Ward 2 aldermanic candidate Frank Douglass and current Ward 30 Alderman Darnell Goldson.

Goldson said he, like Rawlings, would like to see all applicants to the NHFD hail from New Haven in order to “stack [job opportunities] in our folks’ favor.”

Meanwhile, Douglass said he would prefer to see a 60-40 split between resident and nonresident applicants for the fire department openings.

Although Rawlings said he had spoken to members of the aldermanic public safety committee and was confident his ideas could be implemented before the NHFD begins its hiring process on Nov. 28, Smuts said he was not so sure.

He cautioned against making changes that could reignite the controversy that led to the 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case Ricci v. DeStefano. In that decision, 20 NHFD firefighters won a settlement against the city after being denied promotion because the city decided to ignore the results of a firefighter promotion exam on which no black firefighters scored high enough to be promoted.

“What we don’t want to do is overreach and get sucked back into all that litigation,” Smuts said.

But Rawlings said those concerns were only “tangential,” as any cap would only affect firefighters at the beginning of the application process by looking at applicants’ residency.

Smuts will present his proposal to the Civil Service Commission for final approval within the next few weeks.

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