Since Mayor Toni Harp began her tenure, the post of city health director has been unfilled. But the city’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2016, currently before the Board of Alders, might change that.
During a budget workshop last Thursday, the Board of Alders’ Finance Committee heard testimony from Martha Okafor, the city’s community services administrator. Okafor was there to argue in favor of an increase in the budgeted salary for health director — she wants the figure to increase from $125,000 to $145,000. Without that money, she said, New Haven cannot attract a high-caliber individual to direct public health in city.
At the meeting, Okafor said she is requesting the $20,000 increase with a candidate in mind. That candidate is Byron Kennedy SPH ’01 MED ’04 GRD ’04, who currently serves as the health director for Monroe County, New York, which includes the city of Rochester. Kennedy holds an M.D., a PhD and a master’s of public health, all from Yale.
Kennedy announced his resignation, effective May 1, from the Monroe County post, according to a Friday article in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. That report also said Kennedy intends to accept a similar job in Connecticut. Kennedy could not be reached to confirm that he would take the position in New Haven.
Okafor, who interviewed Kennedy for the job, described Kennedy as a strong candidate. She said he is looking for a salary of $145,000, which, she said, would be relatively commensurate with salaries for other health director positions in cities throughout Connecticut.
Okafor added that Kennedy would like to work in New Haven because it is an urban environment.
Not all of the alders readily accepted Okafor’s arguments. Ward 10 Alder Anna Festa questioned whether Kennedy might be overqualified for the position, noting his substantial number of degrees. Okafor responded by saying that his qualifications and desired salary level make Kennedy a good fit for the city.
“For what we are paying this candidate, it is really a huge benefit for us first,” she said.
Festa also questioned how the city could fund the proposed increase in salary for the health director. She said any increase in the health director’s salary must be countered by a reduction in other parts of the budget.
Joe Clerkin, the city’s budget director, said the Community Services Administration has not yet determined where it will cut. The budget will not be finalized for a number of weeks, he said.
But Ward 22 Alder Jeanette Morrison was optimistic about the salary increase and appointment.
“I’m glad that we have someone overqualified,” she said. “We have a lot of sickly children. I work in [the Department of Children and Families], and there’s a lot of asthma and other things we take for granted, and we have no one to really try to fix all of this. So to know that we’ll have someone of such high quality — I’m excited.”
Ward 17 Alder Alphonse Paolillo Jr. echoed those sentiments. He noted that the city often fails to make appointments to key management positions, meaning that departments often end up with acting directors who are often not fully fit for the position. That model is not sustainable, he said, and including the salary increase in the budget might provide a solution.
Tamiko Jackson McArthur, a New Haven pediatrician and Board of Health commissioner, also spoke in favor of Kennedy and the salary increase. McArthur was involved in the interview process for health director candidates in previous years. The city had previously identified another well-qualified candidate for the job, she said, but that candidate decided to take a higher-paying position in a different city.
McArthur said having a figure like Kennedy to head the city’s public health infrastructure might prove transformative, especially in the area of youth health.
The health director would oversee six areas of public health: environmental health, public health nursing, maternal and child health, preventive medicine, health information services and health programs — which include programs for obesity and injury prevention as well as HIV/AIDS prevention.