Mayor Justin Elicker’s budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year included a tax increase and significant cuts in spending, without any “budget gimmicks,” debt refinancing or large asset sales.
Elicker submitted the proposal on Monday to the Board of Alders. Elicker’s public statements and emails in recent weeks have warned Elm City residents that this upcoming fiscal year — which will begin in July — will be a difficult one. His Saturday email update explained to New Haveners that he “inherited a financial mess created over decades” and emphasized that his administration seeks more than just temporary fixes for the city, but that this will come at a cost. This cost manifested in two central ways in the mayor’s proposal: a 3.56 percent tax hike and the removal of 80 currently vacant positions from the budget. Overall, the budget is $12.5 million larger than last fiscal year’s.
“I wanted [this] to be an honest budget — an accurate budget,” Elicker said at a press conference Monday morning. “And that meant to me no one-time large asset sales that would close the budget hole in this one year but would kick the can down the road. It meant to me no debt refinancing … no budget gimmicks [that allow the city] to not address the problem in that fiscal year.”
In crafting this year’s budget, Elicker’s team faced a $45 million gap between revenues and expenses — one that, without spending cuts and restructuring, would require a 16 percent tax increase to rectify. In order to avoid such a drastic increase, the team had to make tough choices about where to cut municipal funding, Elicker said on Monday.
Elicker’s administration said that four goals guided their decision-making: creating an honest budget, minimizing the impact on city services, minimizing the burden on taxpayers and preserving essential programming for the most vulnerable. Elicker’s proposed budget drew the line at shrinking the provisions of homeless and youth services, for example, but reduced operating budgets for the police and fire departments.
Reductions in spending across the board came in the form of removing vacant positions. The police department under Elicker’s proposed budget has 406 sworn positions — as compared to the previous 434. But because the force currently fills only 344 of those positions, there is still room for hiring, Elicker underscored on Monday.
The proposed force reduction would save the city an estimated $3.5 million, Elicker said. The department would additionally see a $1.2 million increase to its overtime budget. In recent years, the police and fire departments have both far exceeded their allotted overtime budgets as they struggle with retention. Combined, Elicker’s proposed changes allow New Haven to rebuild a “depleted” force but “lower the overall expectation” for force size, the mayor said.
Elicker pointed to the budgetary changes as also structurally important; he referenced recent conversations about the need for more officers to fully implement community policing and acknowledged the tendency of officers to leave the Elm City for higher salaries in neighboring jurisdictions.
Police Chief Otoniel Reyes said at Monday’s press conference that he stands by the mayor’s proposal because “that’s what we have to do.” Reyes also affirmed his commitment to community policing regardless of the size of his force.
Elicker has additionally proposed eliminating a dozen firefighter positions while adding four specific posts — three captains and one lieutenant — as required by a recent fire union contract. This shift, he said on Monday, will allow the city to reduce minimum manning costs by outsourcing advanced paramedic services.
This aligns with agreements outlined in last year’s fire contract, which gives the fire chief discretion to reduce minimum staffing requirements from 72 to 69 firefighters per shift, resulting in nearly $1.3 million in annual personnel savings. If staffing were reduced, the fire department would also be forced to remove all of the city’s Advanced Life Support emergency medical units in order to relocate staff to existing squads. This, Local 825 President Frank Ricci told the New Haven Independent, will help the fire department achieve its aim of having a neighborhood fire engine in every district.
Elicker said that New Haven is considering several paramedic partners. Currently, the city contracts with American Medical Response for high-need emergency services, according to the New Haven Independent.
Elicker’s budget also calls for a major restructuring of several city departments, which he says will make operations more efficient in addition to eliminating several positions. Under the proposal, the Departments of Parks, Recreation and Trees; Youth Services; and Public Works will become the Department of Parks and Public Works and the Department of Youth and Recreation. This change comes amid Elicker’s recent firing of former Youth Services Director Jason Bartlett as well as the department’s new structuring under the Community Services Administration.
Elicker also made cuts to or eliminated several city programs and staff positions — some of which came from his own office.
As for schools, Elicker proposed a $3.5 million Board of Education increase — significantly less than the $10.8 million requested by a consistently embattled board. While acknowledging the significant challenges New Haven’s public schools face in providing structural support to students and addressing rising fixed costs, Elicker said that the requested amount is “just too much” for the city this year.
In aggregate, the FY 2020–21 proposed budget is still 2.24 percent larger than the current general budget, amounting to a $12.5 million increase in the general fund. Rising fixed costs, increased obligations under the new police and fire contracts and pension payments all contribute to this figure, Elicker said. But the main driver is debt servicing — an obligation created by his predecessor.
While on the campaign trail, Elicker routinely criticized former Mayor Toni Harp’s fiscal policy, which included an 11 percent tax increase and a historically unprecedented $160 million debt refinancing. Over the past two years, the city’s obligations on its debt have increased from $30 million to a current $44 million and are scheduled to come in at $57 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1. This gave the city a short reprieve in debt payments that it will pay for in the long term.
At the time of the decision in August 2018, the three alders on the city’s Bond Sale Commission — Aaron Greenberg (Ward 3), Board President Tyisha Walker-Myers (Ward 23) and Majority Leader Richard Furlow (Ward 23) — said that in the face of rising challenges, they “will continue to look at other options to drive down costs and keep the burden of undue tax increases from our residents.”
Elicker has taken a strong stand against debt refinancing and offered the 3.56 percent tax increase, slashed positions and restructuring as his fiscally responsible alternative. In the coming weeks, the alders will negotiate the mayor’s proposed budget to reach a final agreement in May.
In the interim period, the city will host three public input meetings. The first of these will be on March 11 at Hillhouse High School.
Mackenzie Hawkins | firstname.lastname@example.org