Apprehensive parents, community organizers and business owners stood before the Board of Alders’ finance committee last night to voice concerns about understaffed city departments during the second public hearing of the budget season.
The committee — which held its hearing at the Career High School Auditorium on Monday evening — heard testimonies from 33 members of the public who shared personal stories and cited data in favor of or against specific line items in Mayor Toni Harp’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year. At this public hearing, the second of three scheduled hearings on the budget, city residents spoke in favor of adding four new nurses to the Health Department to better serve New Haven Public Schools. Community members also defended the mayor’s addition of a new library staff members and a new food systems director to oversee the Food Policy Council.
Nijija-Ife Waters, the mother of an NHPS student, said that while Harp’s proposal to hire four new nurses is a start, the school system needs to add even more medical staff members.
“When you’re thinking about this budget, just know that four new nurses are not enough for our babies,” Waters told the alders.
Earlier this year, while at work, Waters received a text message from her son’s teacher saying that he was having trouble breathing. Waters’s son, who is an asthmatic, was experiencing an attack and needed medical attention. Waters said that while her son’s teacher did her best to respond to her son, the absence of a trained medical professional scared her. There is a nurse on duty only once a week for two hours at her son’s school, according to Waters.
Several other parents echoed Waters’s statements, and Susan Samuels, a city resident and board member at her grandchildren’s school, said that adding 10 new nurses, instead of the proposed four, in the 2015–16 budget would better address the needs of NHPS. There are 53 schools in the New Haven district, but only 31 nurses. Medical staff members are shared between the schools, and no city schools have full-time nurses.
“I know how difficult it is to do a budget and how difficult it is to figure out what’s needed and what’s important,” Samuels said. “But we need to look at this for safety.”
In addition to pushing for more medical support in NHPS, those who spoke at the budget hearing underscored the importance of food advocacy in improving the health of city residents. Harp’s budget proposal asks for funds to hire a new food systems director to lead the Food Policy Council and to serve as the link between the city and private organizations.
Council Chair Alycia Santilli said the new director will serve as the sole point of communication between the city and the 35 pantries and soup kitchens, which will ease coordination between public and private partners.
“The needs are so demanding that it’s difficult to think strategically and, more, to act strategically,” said Reverend Alex Dyer, the executive director at the Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry. “There’s little time for coordination and advocacy.”
Dyer said a food systems director could help private organizations connect with one another as wells as assist in decision making.
Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 , Harp’s opponent in the 2013 mayoral election and executive director of the New Haven Land Trust, also spoke in favor of a new director, adding that the hire would propel the New Haven food movement.
The budget proposal also includes four hires in the New Haven Free Public Library system. Members of the public spoke in support of the staff additions and also requested that the finance committee consider allocating even more funding to the NHFPL, which currently receives $27 per capita from the city — below the state average of about $40 per capita.
“We need to increase library funding and put the library back on a path towards success,” said Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, deputy chief communications officer for Yale. “It’s the best investment we have in young people and old people. It serves every single person in the city, including the homeless.”
Christine Bishop, a member of the city’s Financial Review and Audit Commission, stepped back and observed the budget as a whole in her statement. She said she was concerned that the city’s capital budget — which funds improvements in the city — has increased about $10 million to $55.5 million from the last fiscal year. She urged the alders to examine each line item and understand why the budget had increased.
The Board of Alders will vote on Harp’s proposed 2015–16 budget on May 26.