Educations cuts and other spending reductions backed by a dissenting group of city alders emerged as a flashpoint at Thursday’s public hearing on the mayor’s proposed budget, as residents came out in droves to defend the funding they said underwrites the city’s well-being.
The People’s Caucus, as the breakaway coalition is known, would like to trim $40 million from the city’s education funding, as well as make significant reductions in youth, library and elderly services. Their goal? To cut city taxes by five percent — a proposal which stands in sharp contrast to Mayor Toni Harp’s proposed 3.8 percent tax increase.
The most forceful criticism of the Caucus’ tactics came from Art Perlo, who retired from a job in Information Technology at Yale. He said taxes have kept pace with inflation and are the reasonable cost of city services.
“I have a problem with the so-called People’s Caucus and their budget,” Perlo said before a crowded auditorium at Hill Regional Career High School. “They’ve come in with a confrontational and combative approach to the mayor, toward the majority on the [Board of Alders] and toward the unions in New Haven.”
More than a dozen residents testified against the Caucus’ proposed cuts to education, which were devised by Ward 19 Alder Mike Stratton after he discovered that the city was pumping money into the school district in the form of medical benefits and workers’ compensation for teachers and administrators.
Zeidy Cruz of Division Street said through tears that the Caucus’ proposed cuts represent an “attack on students with special needs,” including her own autistic son. Barbara Tinney, executive director of the New Haven Family Alliance, called reducing education spending “insane.”
The Street Outreach Worker Program, which would see its funding eliminated under Stratton’s proposal, protects vulnerable youth while “everyone in City Hall is sitting on their behind,” said David Morales, an outreach worker. “We’re doing the footwork,” he added.
Gary Doyens, a budget watchdog sharply critical of the mayor’s budget, came to Stratton’s defense. He said the city cannot justify a $200,000 line item for the street outreach program before producing a report detailing the results of their work.
Stratton defended the Caucus’ budget proposal following Thursday’s hearing, saying it represented a rough outline and not a final draft ready for implementation. He said he heard the concerns of street outreach workers and that he plans to go out and observe their work.
The mayor’s office also took a swing at Stratton’s budget proposal this week, saying it attempted to “balance our budget at the expense of our children.”
Stratton’s argument is that the city’s contribution to the school district is not only excessive but illegal, as it comes in the form of “commingled benefits for city employees and employees of the Board of Ed.” Stratton said the payments were intentionally hidden to justify increased city spending, a tactic he said former Democratic Town Committee Chair Jackie James and Board of Alders President Jorge Perez were aware of.
James responded in a City Hall press release, saying Stratton’s statements were fabricated. Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden said the city’s payments are legally sound, as the “Board of Education is a city department,” a fact Stratton contests. He maintains that the funding is fraudulent, and bankrolls an expansive and wasteful school administration rather than helping children.
The final public hearing on the budget is scheduled for May 1.