In September, the Board of Aldermen ordered New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. to develop strategies by Oct. 1 to address a questionable land purchase by the city last year. On Monday, DeStefano delivered, though not without criticism.
This week, the mayor’s office presented the Board of Alderman a series of recommendations to prevent improper real estate deals. The report came in the wake of New Haven’s purchase of 187 Dixwell Ave, a deal made by former Corporation Counsel Thayer Baldwin Jr. without proper authorization from the city’s Department of Engineering.
At the board’s request, current Corporation Counsel Thomas Ude and the mayor’s office wrote a 14-page report that sets out a plan to prevent future lapses. The document also addressed the replenishment of funds improperly drawn from a city bond account to pay for 187 Dixwell Ave.
The plan called for formalizing land purchasing guidelines, clarifying lines of responsibility, and further training officials in New Haven law. DeStefano also recommended the creation of a list of approved building appraisers. Though the state already maintains such a list, DeStefano characterizes his as more “rigorous” and said it is necessary to be certain of an appraiser’s quality.
Ted LeVasseur, the campaign manager for Republican mayoral candidate Joel Schiavone, questioned the effectiveness of the mayor’s proposal.
“It sounds like a lot of rhetoric without a lot of meat on the bones,” LeVasseur said.
The building at Dixwell, a dilapidated 24-unit apartment complex, was torn down over the summer by the Board of Education. A playground for the Isadore Wexler Elementary School will replace the demolished building.
“The demolition of 187 Dixwell is important for public purposes,” DeStefano said. “You can’t say it could be better used unless you live across town and haven’t seen it.”
According to the Board of Aldermen, the city paid twice the actual value of the property, and Baldwin violated the charter by signing a voucher authorizing the release of bond funds not designated for 187 Dixwell. Under the rules of the charter, bond money can not be released without the signature of the department for which the funding is allotted.
The building was previously owned by Wendell Harp, the husband of State Senator Toni Harp. A day after receiving payment in April 2000, Harp paid off more than $95,000 in debts to the city.
“The concern is that there were laws and procedures not followed,” said Ude.
LeVasseur said the city paid more for the property than its appraised value and said the city should have been more judicious in hiring a building appraiser.
“I wish they had looked at [the state] list last spring,” LeVasseur said.
In order to replenish the bond fund, city officials are working to transfer leftover equity from old, closed-out accounts.
Baldwin, now a Superior Court judge in Hartford, also failed to secure the necessary permission from the Board of Alderman or the New Haven Housing Commission.
The missing signature was not discovered at the Department of Finance until after the funds had been disbursed.
In a memo independent of the mayor’s report, city Controller Mark Pietrosimone described the steps his department took to address the controversy.
“The city’s Finance Department has had established procedures for … purchasing requests,” Pietrosimone wrote. “These procedures have been re-emphasized through a series of seminars with appropriate city staff.”
The Finance Department now requires certified documents from Board of Alderman’s meetings that approve any purchase.