Mackenzie Hawkins

On Friday afternoon — just four days before Tuesday’s highly anticipated primary contest — Mayor Toni Harp addressed a crowd of 30 Yale students in a policy forum hosted by the Yale Political Union.

At the forum, Harp — who is currently seeking her fourth consecutive term — addressed a variety of policy issues tied to New Haven’s budget. She opened her remarks by rebuking state policies that restrict the city’s ability to raise revenue — in particular, the lack of a county government and Yale’s tax exemption. Still, Harp emphasized that despite New Haven’s tight budget, she believes her administration has made significant improvements in areas including safety and education.

Since 1960, when Connecticut eliminated county governments, New Haven and other municipalities have been forced to fund city operations primarily through property taxes. This has presented a problem for the Elm City. Per the Connecticut Constitution, Yale and other nonprofits enjoy a tax-exempt status. Yale buildings, as well as Yale New Haven Hospital and several other nonprofit agencies, constitute 55 percent of property in New Haven. Given that this property is not taxable, the city’s financial burden falls on local residents, 25.6 percent of whom live in poverty.

“As I think about it, the real culprit in this [revenue reduction] is the State of Connecticut. We can [also] say that it’s Yale: Absolutely there should be more pressure placed on Yale and [other colleges with] this special designation,” Harp said on Friday. “But it was the state that made the decision to give them that special designation… It’s the state that’s decided that there will be no county government… In spite of that, we’ve made progress.”

The University does make an annual voluntary payment to the Elm City. But that payment, which currently stands at around $11.5 million, is significantly lower than what Yale would pay in taxes — $194 million, according to Harp. At the YPU forum, Harp said that her administration supported a 2016 bill that, if passed, would have taxed Yale’s endowment at a rate of seven percent. Still, last week, at a debate with mayoral candidate Justin Elicker, she expressed doubt that New Haven would ever see those dollars if a similar bill were passed today, and said that she would prefer to first negotiate with Yale to increase the voluntary payment.

When the News asked Harp to clarify her position, she affirmed her support for the 2016 legislation, saying that she would support it again “as long as some of the resources came back to the city.”

In the face of these taxation shortfalls, many have criticized the steps Harp’s administration has taken to balance the city budget — which included an 11 percent tax hike and a historic debt restructuring. In a recent debate, mayoral candidate Justin Elicker warned that New Haven needs to correct its financial behavior before it courts bankruptcy or loses its fiscal autonomy to the state.

But on Friday, Harp defended her administration’s fiscal record and cited progress in New Haven’s financial accountability and future. She pointed to an improved credit rating from Moody’s, a credit rating agency that she said has traditionally been the Elm City’s “harshest critic.”

Budgetary concerns dominated the conversation in Friday’s forum, particularly when Harp turned to safety and education. She pointed to the pay differential between New Haven and nearby police departments as the primary reason for an understaffed police force in the Elm City.

Because of the significant gap between the average starting salaries of Yale and New Haven police officers, Harp said that the former department often “poaches” officers from the latter. In 2018, the starting salary for a Yale police officer was $67,797, while in 2017, New Haven police officers earned a starting salary of $44,000 — about $24,000 per year less than their Yale counterparts.

During Harp’s tenure, the Board of Education has come under fire, with high board member turnover and recent transportation issues for New Haven public schools. Following conversations about bus stop consolidation that began last year, the district reduced the number of New Haven stops from around 11,000 to 4,546. Since the beginning of this school year, residents have filed about 900 requests for new bus stops, accounting for about two percent of all students enrolled in the New Haven Public Schools system.

In general, Harp also blamed the shortfalls of New Haven’s public education on the city’s limited budget. Much of New Haven’s public education funding comes from the Connecticut Education Cost Sharing Grant program, the state’s mechanism for education funds distribution. The program has rarely received its target aid level from the state. Harp also pointed to a recent article in the New Haven Register, which reports 32 vacancies for the city’s public school teachers.

“The way that we’ve been able to address not having the resources we need is that we have reduced our personnel,” she said Friday.

Though she acknowledge the Elm City’s fiscal woes, Harp lauded the city’s public schools and police force, despite limited resources. She cited the city’s reduction in violent crime, the implementation of body cameras and New Haven’s practice of community policing and touted two safety programs — Connecticut Youth Stat, which works with at-risk youth via interventions and programming, and Project Longevity, which aims to reduce gun violence. Harp also referenced her administration’s success in reducing suspension and expulsion rates as well as achieving a graduation rate of 80 percent in 2018. Graduation rates at Hillhouse High School grew from 46 to 74 percent from 2011 to 2016. Harp said on Friday that when the school system started “wrap[ping] services” around at-risk youth, their outcomes “extraordinarily improved.”

“I think it was important to bring Mayor Harp onto campus and offer people an opportunity to hear about her different policy initiatives,” said YPU President Milan Vivanco ’21 in an interview with the News. “Particularly because she’s been mayor for so long, since 2013.”

Mackenzie Hawkins | mackenzie.hawkins@yale.edu 

Serena Lin | serena.lin@yale.edu