City staff additions queried

The Board of Alders’ finance committee requested the creation of more City Hall jobs and an entirely new office.
The Board of Alders’ finance committee requested the creation of more City Hall jobs and an entirely new office. Photo by Isaac S.

It takes money to make money.

That is the message the Board of Alders’ finance committee sent Wednesday night as they hedged on the requested creation of seven additional City Hall jobs and one entirely new office. Rather than sending the items on to the full Board, the nine alders present kept the proposals in committee, requesting that representatives from the mayor’s office return with clearer job descriptions and budgetary details.

“There’s a serious breakdown here,” said committee chair and Ward 4 Alder Andrea Jackson-Brooks, referring to delays in the presentation of proposed salaries and funding mechanisms. Board President Jorge Perez asked Harp’s acting parks director, Rebecca Bombero, who has also been acting as a legislative liaison, to be more transparent. Perez said he was concerned the mayor’s office was understating the fiscal impact of its requests.

Bombero urged the committee to move quickly on the proposed positions, saying that a full-time legislative director and grant writer are necessary to capture funds that will become available under a slew of federal grants in the next two months. The alders declined to make a hasty judgment, promising to return to the proposals after reviewing the budgetary implications and more detailed job descriptions from the mayor’s office.

The proposals, submitted at the behest of Mayor Toni Harp, would create an Office of Development and Policy within the mayor’s office, tasked primarily with writing grants to secure philanthropic and corporate funds. It would include a director’s position with an expected salary of $116,000. That job would go to Mendi Blue, currently Harp’s director of labor relations and a former management consultant.

Harp has also asked that a legislative director position be added to the payrolls, as well as a director of minority and small business initiative and a bilingual administrative assistant. She said the grant writing positions would ultimately pay for themselves, helping the city win funds that would indirectly cover their own salaries. Alders expressed skepticism about that prospect, saying salaries for the new positions — as well as medical benefits and other associated costs — need to be written into the budget whether or not the new staffers succeed in securing funding for the city.

Michael Harris ’15, Harp’s liaison to the Board, said the positions will be funded for the remainder of the fiscal year by leftover money from expired grants. After that money dries up, he said, the mayor’s office will look for potential vacancies to eliminate as it moves the new positions into the general fund. Ward 22 Alder Jeanette Morrison asked what would happen to the new hires if they do not perform as expected. She said she would rather not budget money for positions that will end up being terminated in three to five years.

Bombero said grants have a high rate of success but take a considerable amount of time to prepare. She said she spent 40 hours on top of her regular work preparing the youth violence prevention grant that won the city $750,000 at the end of last year. When the city contracts out the work to private individuals, it comes at a considerable fee. She defended the position’s proposed $116,000 salary — which Ward 17 Alder Alphonse Paolillo Jr. noted is higher than that of the city’s chief administrative officer — by saying it is standard in the industry.

Blue, a New Haven native who holds three Harvard degrees, said her job would able tap into resources not currently being pursued by the city — namely philanthropic and corporate funding. She said each city department currently applies for grants on an “ad hoc basis.” She would be in charge of coordinating those efforts and expanding the number of funding sources.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Harris named a handful of available grants that the Office of Development and Policy might pursue, including money for an adult drug program and for an art technology career training program. Morrison asked why city staffers currently writing grants on a part-time basis could not apply for this funding.

“This gives us the leg up we need,” Bombero responded.

Local residents and government watchdogs Ken Joyner and Gary Doyens appeared at Wednesday’s meeting to protest the additions to the mayor’s office. Joyner said the director of minority and small business initiative position was eliminated two budgets ago, absorbed into the Economic Development Office. Grant writing does not merit a full-time position, he added.

Doyens said the city cannot afford to increase the mayor’s staff, saying the proposed additions were all duplicative of current offices and positions. He further criticized the mayor’s staff for not being sufficiently attentive to public concern.

“The staff came here late for this public hearing and they left before hearing the public rebuttals,” Doyens said. Bombero was the single staff member to stay through the end of public testimony.

The finance committee’s next meeting is scheduled for March 12.

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