Mayor John DeStefano Jr. maintained focus on his legislative priorities in the budget proposal for fiscal year 2013 he announced Thursday.
At a City Hall press conference Thursday afternoon, DeStefano outlined a proposed budget of $486.8 million, up 2.4 percent from last year’s total. Among his proposals are a $2.7 million increase in police department funding and a $1.2 million jump in education funding, the first such increase in four years.
Following the revaluation of city properties that took place last year, three-quarters of New Haven property owners will see their property taxes decrease. The other quarter of residents, if DeStefano’s Homeowner Fairness Initiative is passed by the state legislature, will see their taxes increase in gradual phases over the next five years.
No layoffs of city employees are projected in DeStefano’s proposal, and residents would not see an increase in any fees the city charges if it wins the approval of the Board of Aldermen.
DeStefano’s budget presents a rosier picture of city finances than the budget he proposed a year ago, when he announced sweeping cuts and layoffs in response to the rising cost of city employees’ pensions and health care benefits. When he proposed last year’s budget, he predicted nearly 200 city employees would have to be laid off. Every city department except the Board of Education saw deep cuts to close the city’s budget gap.
With less of a squeeze on the budget, DeStefano is able to channel more money toward two of the legislative priorities he laid out for the coming year: public safety and education reform. Part of the large jump in police spending is due to the expiration of a police grant, DeStefano added.
Included in the expanded police budget would be two new classes of 67 police recruits that would allow the New Haven Police Department to fully staff its car patrols, restore the number of school resource officers to 12, bring back two policing districts in the Hill and double the number of walking beats, the centerpiece of NHPD Chief Dean Esserman’s efforts to revive community policing in New Haven. The increase would also allow the department to double the size of its Internal Affairs bureau, which DeStefano said would help “police the police.”
Although 2011 saw the largest number of homicides in 20 years, overall violent crime in the city has fallen. According to the NHPD, violent crime is down 19.2 percent in 2012 compared to the same time a year ago.
School reform, which has been named as a central legislative priority for lawmakers in Hartford, also receives a boost from DeStefano’s proposed budget. While other departments have suffered cuts exacerbated by an economic recession, the Board of Education’s funding has gone untouched for three years.
The $1.2 million increase in school funding — although less than the $5 million asked for by the school board — will give momentum to the city’s effort to promote New Haven’s education reform efforts, which have received attention at the state and national level in recent weeks.
“[The increased funding] will allow the Board of Education to continue our nationally acknowledged teacher evaluation model,” DeStefano said.
This funding assumes DeStefano’s projection that the Board of Education will see the reduction of 119 positions due to attrition. If too few education personnel leave the city’s payroll, DeStefano said, the city would examine other ways to balance the education budget, including layoffs.
The Board of Education will also receive $6.1 million in state funding this year.
The city’s expanded budget, DeStefano said, is made possible in large part by a $7.5 million increase in property tax revenue. Last year, New Haven’s grand list — the the total assessed value of all taxable property in the city — grew by over $860 million this year, a 16.7 percent increase over last year.
This growth is a testament to the success of the city’s “aggressive” economic development strategies and has a large impact on what can be done with the city budget, DeStefano said. He added that the rest of the city’s new revenue will come from savings in other areas such as energy and recycling costs.
The largest expenditure increases, DeStefano said, will continue to come from growing pension and health care costs for city employees. Although not as central to DeStefano’s budget as last year, when City Hall was engaged in negotiations with city unions over labor concessions, the mayor emphasized that benefits and pensions for city employees continue to be “major cost drivers” and reforming these in labor agreements is key to controlling future costs and preserving the city’s fiscal stability.
“Employee pension and health care costs remain our large cost that we continue to work on year after year with our bargaining unit,” DeStefano said.
He added that the two additional classes of police recruits he plans to hire, as well as his proposed 43 new fire department recruits, will likely see different employee benefits than what currently exist for city workers.
In the long term, he said, New Haven would have to learn to work with a lack of developable land — only 1.4 percent of city land is currently unused — a large percentage of tax-exempt property, and a low number of owner-occupied dwellings in the city. DeStefano also called on the state to pass legislation to allow the city to diversify its tax base by levying taxes other than property taxes.
DeStefano’s proposed budget now goes to the Board of Aldermen’s finance committee, which will debate its provisions before making its own recommendations and sending a final proposal to the full board for a vote.
In the past, the board has been criticized as a rubber stamp for DeStefano’s fiscal policies. Last fall, however, aldermanic candidates endorsed by Yale’s unions defeated many DeStefano-supported candidates to win a controlling majority on the board, which may allow them to set the tone of budget discussions.
The first finance committee meeting is scheduled for March 15. DeStefano will hold his own public meetings on the budget beforehand, with the first meeting tomorrow at 11 a.m. at St. Bernadette’s Church Hall in East Shore.