City departments pitch budget plans

The Board of Aldermen’s Finance Committee met Thursday night to review budget appropriations for 13 city offices and services.

During the 6 p.m. meeting held at City Hall, almost 20 representatives from city offices — including the Chief Administrator’s Office, Public Safety Communications, the Public Library, Parks, Recreation & Trees, Police Services, Fire Services and Engineering — explained the changes that took place under their administration in the last year. Additional discussions focused on each office’s initiatives looking forward.

Robert Smuts ’01, the city’s chief administrative officer, represented New Haven and the Chief Administrator’s Office. He said although the city enjoyed increased tax revenue in the past year because of a higher mill rate and moderate economic growth,  citywide revenue had not increased much because of a 20 percent decrease in state aid.

“We’re trying to do more with the same or slightly less,” Smuts said.

Smuts identified pension obligations, health benefits, workers’ compensation and debt service as the city’s fastest-growing financial responsibilities. He added that spending on public safety and education has stayed relatively flat and decreased, respectively, excluding medical and pension benefits from the costs.

Smuts, who accompanied each of the city office representatives, said that the Public Safety Communications office had saved money by implementing civilian, rather than uniformed, supervisors. He said the office plans to reduce costs further by partnering with West Haven to create a regional public safety management system, which would better handle unexpected spikes of calls, receive greater subsidies from the state and take advantage of economies of scale to find operational savings. This, he added, would help address the challenge of increased calls in an age of widespread technology.

“Everyone has a cell phone now,” Smuts said. “It’s very easy to call 911.”

Finance committee members were not pleased that city spending on libraries in the last 12 years has decreased by a third. When Ward 7 Alderman Doug Hausladen ’04 asked if Mayor John DeStefano Jr. did not like libraries, Smuts responded that although he thought his boss liked libraries, the state had faced budget challenges in recent years.

Ward 22 Alderwoman Jeanette Morrison, who represents portions of the Dixwell and Yale communities, expressed support for expanding afternoon hours of the New Haven Public Library’s campuses. She said such support for libraries in the Elm City’s non-Downtown neighborhoods is especially important because it takes kids off the streets.

“In my ward, the library serves as the after-school program,” she said. “It serves as the safe haven.”

Patrick Egan, the Fire Department’s assistant chief of administration, proposed increasing the maximum number of department lieutenants. Doing so, he said, would allow the department to increase the number of higher-ranked officers without depleting the number of lower-ranked ones. Board of Alderman President Jorge Perez, however, said the Board would not increase the department’s number of lieutenants.

New Haven Police Department Chief Dean Esserman said the department asked for a $500,000 increase in overtime pay — and a $3.9 million overtime budget overall — primarily because there were not enough full-time police officers. The department currently employs 379 full-time officers, with an additional 27 undergoing police academy training, according to Esserman. Without enough officers, he said, others had to work overtime, driving up costs.

“We’re authorized for 494 officers for a reason,” Esserman said. “That’s not a made-up number.”

New Haven’s government must pass a budget for fiscal year 2014 by June 1.

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