City moves to attract successor at helm of public works

The Board of Aldermen’s finance committee moved Thursday night to raise the salary of the public works director in a bid to attract top talent for the retiring Jon Prokop, who is paid $98,000 a year.
The Board of Aldermen’s finance committee moved Thursday night to raise the salary of the public works director in a bid to attract top talent for the retiring Jon Prokop, who is paid $98,000 a year. Photo by Rishabh Bhandari.

On Thursday night, the Board of Aldermen’s finance committee took the first step toward raising the salary of the city’s director of public works.

At the committee’s monthly caucus, which took place at the Clemente Leadership Academy on Columbus Avenue, aldermen assembled with the intention of discussing pension policy for New Haven Police assistant chiefs. Instead, a last-minute change of plans struck the item from the docket, and the committee turned instead to a discussion of the director of public works’ salary and a report on the city’s employee healthcare plans. Ultimately, the committee passed both proposals, which will now go to the full Board for consideration.

In an interview with the News prior to the meeting, NHPD Union President Louis Cavliere Jr., whose rank and file have lacked a contract for nearly a year and a half, said the committee would not discuss NHPD pension policy because “significant progress has been made in negotiations a few days ago.” At the committee meeting, the city’s Chief Administrative Officer Robert Smuts ’01 refused to divulge more information about the deal, saying that it “should be announced in the near future.” Cavliere and Smuts said both parties would prefer to deal directly with each other rather than to go through the Board.

With pension policies off the table, the committee turned to a debate over the salary of New Haven’s director of public works — $98,000, which the city fears is too low to attract high-quality candidates to replace Jon Prokop, who is retiring in January.

“We have a terrific Director of Public Works [John Prokop], but … we haven’t found anyone who is good enough to replace him because we’re not financially competitive,” said Smuts, adding that the committee should expect a qualified replacement to cost the city $125,000.

Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez agreed, citing a survey of other Connecticut Directors of Public Works’ salaries. New Haven is the second largest city in Connecticut with 130,000 people, he said, but 38 other towns and cities in the state pay their directors more than New Haven, including two towns with populations under 10,000.

But New Haven resident Kevin Joyner argued that if the Department of Public Works had to be strengthened, there are better ways to do it.

“In front of my house, there’s a sign that says the streets will be swept on the first and third Thursdays of the month. We’re lucky if they sweep once a month,” said Joyner, adding that a few years ago the city was fulfilling this promise.

Ward 15 Alderman Ernie Santiago concurred, suggesting that the city fill department vacancies below before increasing the director’s salary. He added that “$98,000 isn’t peanuts” and the city should look look internally for Prokop’s replacement.

But the story of former Deputy Public Works Director John Lawlor undermines this argument, Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 said.

“Lawlor — a good friend of mine — was a deputy we trained to succeed Prokop, but we weren’t able to financially compete,” Elicker said, adding that while New Haven could only afford to pay him $86,000, Bloomfield, a town with only 33,000 people, offered him $126,000 a year. Smuts said Santiago’s view promotes “penny-pinching” — an ostensible savings of $30,000 a year could end up costing New Haven millions in lost efficiency, he said.

Eventually, Smuts’ request prevailed in a 6-2 vote. Ward 16 Alderwoman Migdalia Castro joined Santiago in dissenting.

The proposal will now move to the Board as a whole, which will hold its next meeting in the first week of October.

The finance committee also approved Ward 9 Alderwoman Jessica Holmes’s and Ward 25 Alderman Adam Marchand’s submission of a report from the Health Benefits Review Taskforce which proposed researching ways to lower the city’s healthcare costs.

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