Budget draws sharp criticism

IssacStanleyBecker_AldermanBudget-64

In response to a 2014-’15 budget proposal Mayor Toni Harp unveiled just one week ago, nearly 70 city residents appeared at a public hearing on Thursday to send a unanimous message: do not raise our taxes.

Over the course of two hours of public testimony, more than two dozen people asked the 10-member finance committee of the Board of Alders to take a scalpel to the budget before it goes into effect July 1. As it stands, the budget calls for tax hikes that residents said would devastate property value and drive them from the city. Particularly troublesome, many insisted, is the increased allowance for Harp’s own office, up nearly 50 percent over the amount allotted in the current fiscal year.

Larry Shanbrom offered a cautionary tale. After his business — West Haven Lumber Company — fell on hard times, Shanbrom could not afford to pay the property taxes he was incurring for his home on Prospect Street. He made the tough decision to move out of the city, where he has lived since 1949, and relocate to Milford.

“For the last three years my property taxes have accounted for 40 percent of my net income,” Shanbrom said. “I can no longer afford to live here.”

He asked the Board of Alders to not merely “rubber stamp” the mayor’s proposed $510.8 million budget, which calls for a 3.8 percent increase in property taxes. Shanbrom offered an alternate solution: “cut staff, cut spending.”

That is the strategy a breakaway group of alders is pushing as well. Prior to Thursday’s meeting, the People’s Caucus — the six-member coalition critical of the labor-backed majority on the Board — circulated a list of 10 suggestions they allege would absorb the multi-million dollar rise in fixed costs, including pensions and debt service, without raising taxes.

Ward 19 Alder Mike Stratton, one of the caucus’ main organizers, held a short information session following the general hearing to pitch some of those ideas. These include fighting for additional Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) from the state and nonprofit organizations, boosting taxes for property owners who live outside the city and combining or eliminating many city departments, as well as conducting sweeping layoffs in what Stratton described as “needless administrative positions.”

The most original of the solutions concerns a piece of city spending that has been hidden in the budget for decades, Stratton said. He estimated that the city is spending $50 million on health benefits for teachers and administrators in the school district — money not currently counted within the city’s contribution to the school district.

Debt service and workers’ compensation payments drive the city’s contribution up to roughly $85 million. Stratton said the city should take that money back and force the school district to cover those costs.

Board President Jorge Perez and City Controller Daryl Jones said they were skeptical of Stratton’s claim that education spending has not been correctly appraised in the city’s budget.

Altogether, Stratton said, the solutions he proposed could save the city up to $105 million and enable a mill rate — the calculation of taxes based on assessed property value — of as low as 25. It currently stands at 40.80, meaning a homeowner pays $40.8 for every $1,000 of assessed value.

“I don’t see the logic behind these proposals,” Jones said of the People’s Caucus’ fiscal plan. “Our budget is backed up by facts, it’s fully fleshed out.”

Dissent among the alders themselves also emerged during the hearing. When Edward Bednar asked if the lawmakers would be responding to public testimony or merely listening, Stratton deferred to the committee’s chair, Andrea Jackson-Brooks, before announcing that he would stay after to share his thoughts about the budget with constituents. His comments drew a sharp rebuke from Jackson-Brooks, who told him he was “out of line.”

During his informal follow-up meeting, Stratton told constituents that an electoral strategy is necessary to “beat these people back in 2015.” Jackson-Brooks is among the majority coalition of alders elected with the backing of Yale’s UNITE HERE unions, Locals 34 and 35.

Perez said after the meeting that he understands the aversion to raising taxes. “We feel the pain, too,” Perez said, promising to “look really hard to see what we can do.”

Gerald Khan, a resident who gave testimony, likened the tax hike to “being kicked in the stomach.” He said he has testified year after year before the finance committee only to see his taxes continue to rise. He warned that if the mayor’s proposed tax increase goes through, by next year he may no longer be a New Haven homeowner.

Others said that as their taxes have gone up, city services have degenerated. A handful of people pointed to the city’s incomplete response to the recent spate of snowstorms as evidence that the government is not meeting its reciprocal obligation to provide for public works and maintain roads and parks.

More than a dozen residents queried staff additions to the mayor’s office, asking why Harp is growing her own office while asking taxpayers to pay more to foot the bill. Harp’s budget calls for the addition of about a dozen staff members and the elimination of six. The additions include six in the mayor’s office — such as a bilingual receptionist and a legislative director— as well as an assistant city/town clerk and two new senior-center directors, among others.

Meanwhile, budget watchdog Ken Joyner said, Harp has proposed cutting police and fire overtime and eliminating a tree trimmer from the city payroll.

Christine Bishop, who sits in the financial review and audit commission, blasted the personnel expansion, saying the budget does not outline their purpose, thus failing to justify the major expenditure.

“There are no goals outlined for this new [Office of Development and Policy],” Bishop said. “If you want to spend $246,000 for salaries plus thousands on pensions and benefits, you would really think that the budget should mention what your lofty goals are.”

Harp has defended the new office by saying that it will be tasked with writing grants that will ultimately cover the cost of the added positions.

Residents appealed to the alders’ political interests, saying they would reward them at the ballot boxes for voting against the mayor’s budget.

Adrienne Lewis offered the evening’s darkest appraisal of the city’s fate.

“New Haven is a depressed and dying city,” Lewis said. “We’re living in sin. I wish us all better times.”

Not everyone agreed with Lewis’ assessment; Dick Lyons said New Haven is as beautiful as he can remember it being. Multiple people testified about the state of the city’s parks — and asked alders to do more to preserve what they described as natural treasures.

Jones and Michael Harris ’15, Harp’s liaison to the Board, defended the budget following the hearing. Jones said further reduction to city departments are not possible. Harris added that the city’s staff has already been cut by 20 percent over the last 12 years.

Jones said a number of Stratton’s proposals, including the pension buy-back plan that would encourage workers to move to defined contribution, could run into legal problems.

The next two public hearings on the budget are scheduled for April 3 and May 1.

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