With no contentious tax hikes in Mayor Toni Harp’s proposed budget to draw a crowd, the Board of Alders’ finance committee gathered in a sparsely populated auditorium Thursday evening to host the first public hearing of the budget season.
Although the meeting was advertised as an opportunity to raise questions or concerns about the budget, given that many of those in attendance were library employees, the discussion at the meeting centered on using the budget to revitalize New Haven’s library system.
The committee, which received Harp’s budget proposal on Sunday, met at the Hooker Middle School on Whitney Avenue and invited members of the public to testify for certain line items on the 2015–16 budget.
While last year’s opening hearing revolving around Harp’s proposed tax increases for the 2014–15 fiscal year elicited a crowd of over 70 city residents, less than 10 residents were present at yesterday’s hearing, along with several city officials. Unlike last year’s budget, the 2015–16 budget does not include tax hikes for city residents.
Last night, the only appeal to the alders came from supporters of the New Haven Free Public Library, who underscored the library system’s need for new hires, as outlined in Harp’s budget.
The budget includes salaries for four new NHFPL employees, namely two librarians and two technology assistants. Currently, the city library system has 27 librarians and 11 technology assistants.
“Morale is very, very low because we’re understaffed,” said Claudia Merson, president of the NHFPL’s board of directors. “It’s a really desperate situation.”
City librarian and NHFPL Director Martha Brogan said the four new employees will primarily support NHFPL’s neighborhood branch libraries, which are experiencing the most severe effects of understaffing.
Two weeks ago, the NHFPL launched “A Penny For Your Thoughts” — an advocacy campaign asking the city to increase the library system’s budget from 0.76 percent of the general operating fund to 1 percent of the fund by 2016. Currently, the library has a budget of close to $3.8 million dollars, which amounts to $27.61 dollars per city resident. The state average for library operating budgets is $44.90 per resident.
“We’ve overextended ourselves, and I know we’re not alone,” Brogan said. “We’ve lost so many positions over the years, and we’ve way overspent [our budget].”
Harp’s budget proposal also includes salaries for 23 total new city employees, including seven positions spread across the Health Department, Building Department and Economic Development Administration.
Joe Rodriguez, the mayor’s liaison to the Board of Alders, said a key element of Harp’s budget was that it added direct services for New Haven residents — including support in the library system — while maintaining the tax rate.
“When folks do know there’s a tax increase of any sort, given the economy, it’s concerning,” he said. “The mayor’s budget this year does not include that.”
Board of Alders President and finance committee member Jorge Perez said poor weather conditions likely inhibited city residents from attending yesterday’s hearing. Rodriguez said he expects that more members of the public will attend the next public hearing, which will be held on March 30.
The next budget event will be a workshop — the first of five — at which the finance committee will hear from city departments vying for increased funding for the coming fiscal year. The budget process will conclude on May 26 with a vote at City Hall.
“I feel good,” City Controller Daryl Jones said. “It’s a straight budget. There are no gimmicks in it. It’s a tough budget, but I think we’ve done a good job.”