Hill Alder Dolores Colon ’91 spoke in Spanish at Wednesday evening’s Board of Alders meeting to make a point: The city is ill-equipped to serve its Spanish-speaking residents.
“How would you like it if you walked into a room and no one understood what you were saying?” she asked. The majority of her colleagues voted in favor of creating a new bilingual receptionist position in the mayor’s office, in addition to two other staff additions requested by Mayor Toni Harp.
The vote, 22-5, fell down familiar ideological lines, with the majority team of union-backed alders supporting the personnel expansion and the handful of dissenting alders, known as the People’s Caucus, voting against the additions. Downtown Alder Abby Roth ’90 LAW ’94, who has resisted aligning with either group during her first month in office, voted against all three positions.
Alders who voted in support of the addition defended the positions by saying they will be covered by special funds — leftover grants and other spare cash — and thus will not add to the budget or increase property taxes. But Roth said each position also includes ongoing costs, including pension obligations and medical benefits.
In addition to the bilingual receptionist position, the Board also approved the creation of a Director of Minority and Small Business Initiative and a Director of Development and Policy, charged with overseeing the city’s grant-writing operation. The three additions were slimmed down from the initial seven that Harp had requested.
“The mayor is not getting her wish list,” said East Shore Alder Al Paolillo, qualifying one of his colleagues’ principal reasons for backing the request: that Harp has to be given a chance to set her own course, which means exercising authority over the positions in her own office.
Paolillo offered a different rationale. He said City Hall needs these positions to be competitive with peer cities in Connecticut. By coming before the Board of Alders to submit quarterly reports on their progress, he said, the director positions will be accountable to the mayor’s promises.
The minority and small business position was voted on first and passed only with the opposition of Roth, East Rock Alder Anna Festa and Prospect Hill and Newhallville Alder Mike Stratton.
Bishop Woods Alder Richard Spears and West Rock Alder Carlton Staggers joined in opposition to the bilingual receptionist position and the grants manager position, which were clustered into one vote.
Before the second vote took place, Stratton offered two amendments as last-ditch efforts to steer the Board in a different direction. First he suggested that City Hall should undergo a thorough search to identify an existing receptionist or administrator with Spanish-language skills and then swap that person with the current receptionist in the mayor’s office. If the city can avoid doling out money for an additional receptionist, Stratton said, it should invest it instead in updating the city’s website and voicemail system with bilingual capacity. The amendment was summarily shot down.
He then offered an amendment to change the salary of the grants manager from $114,000 to $70,839, the sum earned by a comparable grants writer for the Board of Education. That, too, was rejected. Festa, after initially suggesting a hiring freeze until the city’s finances stabilize, offered an amendment to lower the salary and then peg bonuses to the amount of money the grants manager is able to bring in for the city. The Board rejected that change as well.
Michael Harris ’15, Harp’s liaison to the Board, said Stratton’s salary comparison is off. Rather than just a manager overseeing the procedural details of grants, the director position will “chase new sources of income,” taking on more of a development role similar to existing positions in cities such as Hartford and Stamford. Those jobs are more handsomely compensated than the one the mayor proposed, he added.
Spears explained his decision to vote in favor of the small business director position but against the other two, saying there is a need to oversee minority contracting and the feasibility of start-ups. With plans for the redevelopment of the former Coliseum site moving forward, opportunities are multiplying for minority businesses and contractors, Spears said.
The bilingual receptionist will earn $40,000 per year. The Director of the Minority and Small Business Initiative will earn $80,000.