In place of the standing-room-only budget meetings normally held in the Board of Alders Chamber, New Haven residents filled the city’s Zoom budget meeting to capacity on Monday. While the venue was different, this year’s budget negotiations featured a recurring theme: that Yale fails to meet its moral — and financial — obligations to the Elm City.
Amid the COVID-19 public health crisis, New Haven’s annual budget negotiations labor on. Mayor Justin Elicker said last week that the novel coronavirus outbreak will affect the budget process and outcome in ways yet to be determined, as the pandemic has put additional pressure on a city already in fiscal crisis. At Monday’s public hearing, scores of New Haven residents — some of whom are affiliated with the University — identified another strain on the municipal budget: Yale. Many said that COVID-19 has only exacerbated existing issues in the city, underscoring that today’s problems are symptoms of Yale’s long-standing failure to adequately contribute to New Haven.
“Our communities have always been in crisis,” West Haven resident Briyana Mondesir said. “Right now, we are just in a deeper and more widespread sense of emergency.”
In addition to reiterating long-standing calls for an increased financial contribution from Yale, several residents voiced their demands regarding the University’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic. Several called on Yale to open its doors and dorms to New Haven residents who face housing insecurity or require isolation as they recover from coronavirus infections — echoing demands laid out in an open letter to the Yale administration, which boasts over 1,200 signatories as of Monday evening. Others suggested measures to expand COVID-19 testing in under-resourced communities and an emergency fund for New Haven families during this crisis and future ones.
For its part, Yale has contributed research and medical personnel, donated personal protective equipment and continued with food provision services amid the outbreak. Yale has additionally contributed $1 million to a $5 million fund for direct aid to the Elm City.
After Elicker slammed the University for initially declining his request to house public safety officers in Yale dorms, University President Peter Salovey committed to clearing 300 rooms of student belongings by the end of the week. Elicker said in a Monday press conference that he has no plans to utilize these dorms at this time but appreciates their availability. He is finalizing arrangements for public safety officer housing with the University of New Haven.
But beyond the specifics of the current public health crisis, Yale’s financial contribution was the central issue for most of Monday’s speakers. COVID-19, they said, has only laid bare the pre-pandemic realities of which many New Haven residents are painfully aware.
Education quickly became a hot topic as public-school teachers and students alike spoke about the stark contrast between Yale’s well-endowed academic institutions and the New Haven’s under-funded public schools. Several teachers lamented large class sizes and limited resources, noting that the move to remote education amid COVID-19 has further revealed the divide between New Haven public school students and their Yale counterparts.
“If Yale values education, they should fund it,” New Haven teacher Jessica Light said. “If they don’t value education, they should lose the right to hold nontaxable properties … They can’t have it both ways.”
Light noted that Yale’s tax-exempt land holdings — valued at around $3.5 billion — are tax-exempt only because they are educational or administrative. These properties, in addition to Yale New Haven Hospital, are exempt through state and federal legislation and had a combined assessed value of $8.47 billion last year.
University spokeswoman Karen Peart said that Yale contributes to Elm City schooling via programs like New Haven Promise, which provides up to $4 million annually in scholarships for public school students, as well as the University’s rich educational programs, which are free for New Haven residents and benefit 10,000 students each year.
New Haven teacher David Weinreb said on Monday that he has taken advantage of these offerings but that they do not relinquish the University of its responsibility to ensure a fully-funded school district.
This conversation comes amid projections of another difficult year for New Haven’s public schools. In his budget proposal, Elicker allotted 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.
But according to many of those who testified on Monday, sufficient funding for education and other essential services are only “too much” because Yale does not do enough. In contrast to what the budget could be with an increased Yale contribution, New Haven resident Yesenia Rivera said that this year’s proposal merely “turns on the lights” — and does so at a cost to taxpayers, who face a 3.56 percent tax hike under Elicker’s plan.
This relatively modest increase is only possible because the mayor has proposed cutting vacant positions across the board, merging several city departments to optimize resources while trying to avoid significant cuts to social services. Without these cuts, residents’ tax burden would have to increase by 16 percent in order to cover a $45 million gap between revenues and expenses.
Annual tax increases on New Haveners have been accompanied by increases in Yale’s annual voluntary payment: a $2.5 million increase in 2018, amounting to $11.5 million that year, and a jump to over $12 million last year. According to Salovey, this is the largest payment of any university to its host city. Moreover, the figure is slated to increase over time, Salovey has said, but not at the fourfold rate Elicker has suggested.
But the mayor and many Elm City residents have pointed out that Yale’s voluntary contribution pales in comparison to the University’s $30.3 billion endowment and the nearly $150 million the University would pay each year if fully taxed.
Yale pays over $5 million in annual property taxes on its non-academic properties, making it one of the top four real estate taxpayers in New Haven.
Mackenzie Hawkins | email@example.com