Every dollar, every copy and every cell phone holds significance for city funding distributions, as the Board of Aldermen is scrambling to make up a nearly $10-million shortfall between Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s proposed budget and the amount of money likely to end up in the final budget — the result of the mayor’s unjustifiably optimistic assumptions about funding to be provided by the state.
Aldermen on the Finance Committee met Wednesday for the second time this week to hear city department heads and other officials defend and explain their budgeting proposals. The committee is not making any final budget decisions at this time, but the gathering offered a chance for aldermen to make their concerns — most of them relatively minor — known to the departmental heads. Principally, aldermen wanted to see more detailed breakdowns of where funding will be directed in the next fiscal year.
State legislators last week declined to include in their fiscal 2009 budget $10 million DeStefano had anticipated receiving for New Haven in the form of PILOT, or Payment in Lieu of Taxes, payments. Under the PILOT program, the state partially compensates cities and towns for revenue lost to nonprofit institutions like schools and hospitals, which are not required to pay property taxes.
Among the topics for discussion at last night’s meeting were the apparent differences between various departmental requests and the mayor’s requests for those departments. City officials explained to Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez that discrepancies in which the mayor seemed to be asking for more than the departments said they will need were due to last-minute adjustments — for example, rates for electricity — that the departments had not anticipated.
In a presentation on the New Haven Police Department’s budget, both city Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts ’01 and NHPD Chief Francisco Ortiz offered a look back at the last year and a view of what might be expected in the department over the next couple years.
Ortiz noted a 7-percent decrease in overall crime and a 50-percent reduction in homicides in 2007 from 2006 levels, but he also noted that the city is currently coping with a recent rash of burglaries. He also sought to allay concerns that the recent purchase of 20 new patrol cars represented a shift away from a more neighborhood-oriented force that relies on more officers walking beats.
Extra cars will merely help the department use the existing — and aging — fleet more efficiently, Ortiz and a fellow NHPD official explained. All officers will eventually have bicycles, he added.
Ortiz took the opportunity to note that this would be the last time he will come before the aldermen. He is retiring April 12 to take a job as head of security for Yale’s West Campus.
Smuts said that while the city currently has 16 empty sergeant positions, the NHPD may hold off on promotions in order to avoid depleting the number of officers on the streets.
In response to a question from Ward 28 Alderman Mordechai Sandman about the optimal size of the department, Ortiz explained that the force should have 496 officers and is currently operating at about 80-percent capacity.
“Today, we are at 402,” he said, noting that an additional 15 to 25 officers daily are on light duty or are off duty.
Continuing to rely so heavily on overtime from a short-staffed force, Ortiz said, “would be the worst thing.”
The board also heard from the Office of Labor Relations, Department of Public Works and the Parks, and Recreation and Trees Department, among others.
Department officials answered questions from aldermen about how parks are selected for renovation. Parks officials said that a general fund — rather than a line-item list — is used in order to fix up parks on an as-needed basis.
Representatives from the parks department also noted that they had substantially reduced the backlog for removing trees and stumps from public right-of-ways from several hundred to 59 over the last year. As a result, the parks department now receives fewer emergency calls during heavy wind storms, saving the department money, they said.
Next Tuesday, aldermen on the Finance Committee will hear from Community Services Administrator Kica Matos.