DEFIESTA: Harp’s budget pains

City Limits

Within a week, we’ll see just how much Mayor Toni Harp has learned in her first two months in office.

defiestaThat’s because her budget for the upcoming fiscal year is due on March 1, giving her the opportunity to ground her legislative agenda and city priorities with hard numbers. It’s one thing to express soaring plans for the Elm City during election and quite another to face the hard reality of implementing those goals.

Before she sat in City Hall’s top seat, Harp served as the senate chair of the legislature’s appropriations committee. That means she’s had heavy influence over the state’s budget, shaping how taxpayer dollars are spent across Connecticut. As mayor, she finds herself in a role that might appear quite similar: She must decide which departments receive city cash.

But dictating budgets as the chair of the appropriations committee is fundamentally different from managing the fiscal health of a city like New Haven. In the state senate, Harp was largely removed from constituents and dealt with the broad implications of distributing state money. At the municipal level, however, she is much closer to those most directly affected by fiscal policies, the citizens whose pocketbooks will register even mild changes in city budgeting. She must deal with the minutiae of finding revenue sources and grapple with uncertain state funding levels.

It seems that Harp is still getting a handle on the intricacies of city budgets and has yet to grasp how the average citizen responds to even the smallest changes in city taxes. That’s the best explanation I can come up with for why the mayor recently announced a possible property tax hike in an attempt to plug a $4.7 million hole in the city’s rainy day fund.

True, taxpayer revenue is necessary for essentially every item on the city’s legislative agenda. Harp has identified public safety, education, jobs and economic development as the highest priority policy initiatives during her first term in office, none of which will see any positive developments without funding. But the city must strike a balance between pursuing these legislative items and keeping New Haven affordable for those who live here.

Already, owning property is much more expensive in the Elm City than in one of the surrounding suburbs. The mill rate in New Haven is 40.80 — meaning property owners pay $40.80 for every $1,000 their property is assessed to be worth — compared to $31.25 in West Haven, $30.95 in East Haven and a low $28.10 in North Haven. From an individual homeowner’s perspective, it already makes a whole lot of sense to move to a neighboring town to pay lower property taxes while still enjoying all the benefits a city like New Haven has to offer. Such reasoning would only grow stronger if Harp follows through with the tax increase she suggested.

Still worse, Harp doesn’t seem to have bothered trying to reduce city spending; instead, she’s made several proposals that would cost New Haven even more than we’re already paying. Harp’s office has submitted requests for a number of seemingly redundant positions — including a bilingual receptionist, a legislative director and a director for the Minority and Small Business Initiative — which, while useful, would be incredibly difficult to justify given the city’s fiscal realities.

And when asked what her immediate priorities were after reading her transition team’s report, Harp said she would create a new community outreach center at the Bethel A.M.E. Church offering activities for kids. A nice idea in theory, but spending much-needed city tax dollars on a new community outreach center that is mere blocks away from the Q House and across the street from the Goffe Street Armory comes off as fiscally irresponsible upon closer inspection.

All that is to say: Harp is facing an incredibly complex budgetary picture and has not yet demonstrated that she is capable of providing the fiscal leadership that New Haven needs. True, the city’s taxpayers continue to struggle beneath the unfair burden of the partially funded PILOT program. And true, short-term budgeting under former Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has not left Harp with the easiest hand to play.

But the Elm City has more than enough budgetary leverage to set itself on a path towards a strong, progressive future. As her own transition team wrote, “The success of moving forward with [Mayor] Harp’s policies depends on getting New Haven’s fiscal house in order.” Next week, Harp’s budget will tell us just what chance those policies have.

Nick Defiesta is a senior in Berkeley College and a former city editor for the News. His columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at nick.defiesta@yale.edu.

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