Karen Lin, Staff Photographer

As the city debates Mayor Justin Elicker’s proposed fiscal year 2021-22 budget, New Haveners are continuing to slam Yale University for what they see as lacking financial contributions to the city.

Elm City residents shared their views on the budget at a Tuesday evening Board of Alders Finance Committee public hearing. The proposed budget, published by Elicker on March 1, includes two possible scenarios. The first is a proposal for a “Crisis Budget,” which would lead to cuts to various city services and a tax hike on New Haven residents. The other is a “Forward Together Budget,” which does not change funding for city services — but would only be possible if New Haven receives additional funds from the state of Connecticut and the University. At the hearing, New Haven residents said that to achieve much-needed progress on issues like housing, climate justice and public safety — and to avoid service cuts through the Crisis Budget — Yale needs to pay more.

“I love the Edgewood neighborhood where I live,” New Haven resident Joelle Fishman said in her testimony. “Neighbors have looked out for each other with food supplies, snow shoveling, all kinds of mutual aid. And we should expect no less from our largest neighbor and employer, Yale University, and Yale New Haven Hospital. That’s why I join with my neighbors in every part of New Haven to send a loud and clear message that it’s not okay to hoard millions and expect families like mine to pick up their tab so the city can function.”

60 percent of the city’s property is tax-exempt due to the presence of Yale, YNHH and other nonprofits. While recent legislation passed through the Connecticut General Assembly may aid cities like New Haven with tiered Payment in Lieu of Taxes funding — and works towards the mayor’s goal of adopting the Forward Together Budget — frustrated New Haveners testifying on Tuesday were adamant that payments from Yale would help the city afford essential services.

In a statement to the News, University spokesperson Karen Peart noted that Yale’s contribution to the city has risen recently.

“We have historically raised our voluntary payment over the years when the city has hit financial difficulties,” Peart wrote. “It has grown to $13m for FY21, which is close to a 50% increase from just a few years ago. The university also pays about $5 million annually in property taxes on non-academic properties through its community investment program, making Yale among the top three real estate taxpayers in New Haven.”

Pushing the legislative agenda

The Board of Alders passed a legislative agenda at the beginning of the month establishing five core issues for City Hall to focus on, including protecting the environment and establishing public safety. In testimonies at the hearing, residents urged the committee to consider the importance of several agenda items, and to think about how the University’s lack of contribution impacts New Haven’s ability to achieve progress in these areas.

Five New Haveners’ testimonies on Tuesday night focused on the environment. Those speaking emphasized the urgency of climate change, and said that if the Elm City does not properly invest in climate infrastructure, it will be in trouble.

New Havener Kiana Flores said the city should consider enacting New Haven Climate Movement’s “Climate Justice and Green Jobs Fund” idea, which would allocate 0.2 percent of the city’s budget toward climate projects that cut carbon emissions.

“We can’t wait another year for adequate climate funding,” she said. “The youth of New Haven are looking toward the city to take the action we so desperately need.”

New Haven resident Eluned Li noted that between 1980 and 2018, the U.S. experienced 213 climate disasters. As the city considers its priorities, she said, it needs to invest in climate-positive actions — like localizing energy generation and boosting education.

Moreover, she said that to fulfil the city’s needs, Yale needs to help.

“Yale University thrives financially, sprawled across the city and occupying valuable land,” Li said. “They publish better than most schools in the field of climate change, public health and socio-economic conditions, but don’t seem keen to pay their share to help see these issues resolved.”

Manuel Camacho, youth president of local youth anti-violence organization Ice the Beef, emphasized the importance of public safety in the city, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I am out here trying to bring opportunities to the youth wherever I go,” he said. “However, it’s frustrating to contribute such vast amounts of hard work, and know that Yale University and Yale New Haven Hospital aren’t contributing their fair share, even when our city is in a crisis. If these institutions paid their fair share, we could fund our priorities like safety and education, and help end the cycle of violence that so many of our friends and families fall victim to.”

Mitchell Library — a “gem”

Many of those who did not testify on legislative issues turned their attention to a potential Crisis Budget cut: the closing of Westville’s Mitchell Library. Under Elicker’s budget proposal, Mitchell Library would need to close if New Haven does not receive an additional $53 million in funding from the state and Yale.

Lauren Anderson, vice president of the New Haven Free Public Library’s Board of Directors, said that current times require cities to “fortify” library systems, not eliminate them.

“Budgets are moral documents,” Anderson said. “The treatment of our libraries by those documents speaks deeply to our shared values. For every $1 spent on public libraries nationally, roughly $5 are returned to their communities. Without question, investing in our libraries is investing in the long-term well-being of our city and its people.”

Charles Asner, who lives in Westville and has autism, said libraries are particularly important to those with disabilities.

“People depend on public libraries not only as a source of literacy and learning, which is important, unquestionably, but also as a means of connecting with the community through things like art galleries and science lectures,” Asner said in his testimony. “Libraries like Mitchell provide a forum for all sorts of cultural exchanges.”

Asner added another concern: Removal of a library branch creates a vacuum in the library system. After the proposed budget was released at the beginning of the month, City Librarian John Jessen noted that if Mitchell was shut down, the west side of the city would not have a library.

Yale’s potential

Elicker has not yet provided any public update on the status of his conversations with the University regarding Yale’s contributions to the city, though on March 1 he said he was “cautiously optimistic” about obtaining additional funds from the University.

In his testimony, longtime New Haven resident Charli Taylor said the concerns fellow residents had expressed — from the environment to housing — come down to a lack of funds.

“These kinds of choices — libraries, dealing with pollutants, or housing and jobs, they shouldn’t be choices that any of us have to make,” Taylor said. “It’s the funding. We can only bleed so much, and we have this institution that has an incredible amount of wealth in New Haven, constantly growing that wealth and not giving back in a way that we can all see.”

Melissa Chambers said she has worked on the front lines at Yale New Haven Hospital since the beginning of the pandemic. She’s gone from working part time to now being a clinical receptionist at the hospital.

“I’m committed to growing and learning the skills that I need to have a successful career,” Chambers said. “In return, I should have the stability of owning my home, access to health care and a stable retirement. Many New Haven residents across our city deserve these services as well, so we need investment in our city — the commitment from large employees like Yale University to win a recovery that helps uplift all of our residents.”

The Board of Alders’ deadline to vote on the budget is early May.

Owen Tucker-Smith | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu

OWEN TUCKER-SMITH
Owen Tucker-Smith serves as Managing Editor of the News. He previously edited the City Desk and covered the Mayor's Office. Owen is a sophomore Statistics & Data Science major in Ezra Stiles College, originally from Williamstown, MA.