As New Haven struggles to find its financial footing, the city’s elected officials are in the midst of hearings to evaluate discrepancies between actual and reported spending by the administration of Mayor Toni Harp.
Alders questioned three of the mayor’s top staffers — Controller Daryl Jones, Budget Director Michael Gormany and Purchasing Agent Michael Fumiatti — at an Oct. 29 Finance Committee. The hearing, which was requested after a city employee racked up $13,000 in fraudulent charges before her dismissal, was held to address City Hall’s credit card usage. The hearing addressed individual expenditures as well as larger patterns of financial accountability within Harp’s administration but did not result in any actions.
Yet discussion is far from over, as members of the Board of Alders have taken steps to request further hearings to discuss specific procedures.
“The last hearing brought up about as many questions as answers,” Ward 21 Alder Steven Winter ’11 said. “We’re still waiting for answers to some specific questions as well. It’s not necessarily that the money isn’t budgeted, but we need to know specific line items … we didn’t get that.”
Ward 7 Alder Abby Roth ’90 LAW ’94 and Ward 10 Alder Anna Festa requested the hearing on Aug. 28 after the firing of a former City Hall staffer, who spent more than $10,000 on the city’s credit card unauthorized. The employee was dismissed and arrested for the fraudulent spending. Just weeks after Roth and Festa called for the hearing, concerns grew as new reports of the city’s credit card records by the New Haven Independent showed that the Harp administration failed to disclose thousands of dollars in spending to the Board of Alders.
The mayor’s office had already fallen under fire for a series of spending choices, including raises for her top staffers and uniform purchases that proved controversial given the Elm City’s poor fiscal condition. Over the summer, the city undertook its largest-ever debt restructuring — extending payments on $160 million worth of existing debt and taking out an additional $58 million in new borrowing.
Since 2005, New Haven’s mayor has been required by City Ordinance to report spending to the Board of Alders on a monthly basis. Harp’s undisclosed expenditures uncovered by the Independent fell under two categories. In some cases, the projected costs of trips were significantly lower than the actual costs. In others, trips and expenditures by staffers went unreported entirely. For the latter, undisclosed costs included airfare, hotel stays and meals for various symposiums.
At the Oct. 29 hearing, alders questioned the Harp administration officials on big-picture issues of systems to ensure accountability and transparency while also zeroing in on specific charges in the spending records. While Harp’s staffers defended many of the individual charges the alders highlighted, they were also unable to account for several trips in their entireties. For example, one of the mayor’s assistants took a series of trips — including one to Birmingham, Alabama — which were never reported or accounted for. The trips, and lack of explanation, concerned several of the alders even after the hearing request.
“Monitoring the city’s credit card spending is critically important even though it’s not going to solve our $30 million structural deficit,” Roth told the News. “Credit card spending is just one example of the systemic pattern of a lack of effective process and controls for managing city expenses.”
Mayoral spokesperson Laurence Grotheer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The alders also took issue with what they saw as a lack of a clear policy on spending and reporting. Roth, for example, highlighted a pair of three-day traveling trips whose costs were each reported as below $300 — an estimation she believed to be unreasonably low and demonstrative of potential underreporting of projected costs.
Though the payments and expenditures are not inherent problems within themselves, the lack of an accountable vetting process in which the Board of Alders — the city’s legislative arm — would receive full reports on the executive’s spending and justification frustrated Winter.
City Hall, the alders suggested, should have clear and designated limits and structures for spending. With no such systems currently in place or publicized, Roth and Winter followed up the previous hearing by requesting another.
A date for the follow-up hearing, which will focus on the issues of how the city tracks spending and setting and enforcing per diem limits for city employees, has yet to be set.
“The real question here is how we audit spending and how spending is reported to the Board of Alders, making sure that there’s a clear and transparent process,” Winter told the News.
Harp was first elected mayor in 2013.
Angela Xiao | firstname.lastname@example.org