A tale of two proposals: the planning and politics of New Haven’s next budget
With deliberations days away, where does the budget debate stand?
Karen Lin, Staff Photographer
On Monday, the Board of Alders finance committee will begin deliberations on the New Haven fiscal year 2021-2022 budget. But with two plans on the table, a devastating budget crisis and a neighborhood of New Haveners fervently defending Mitchell Library, the path to a final plan looks to be anything but smooth.
On March 1, Mayor Justin Elicker announced two potential budgets for the city: a “Crisis Budget” that would cut services and close various buildings — including Westville’s beloved Mitchell Library — and a “Forward Together Budget” that would not make these cuts. However, Elicker said implementing the “Forward Together Budget” is contingent on increasing financial contributions from the University and the state of Connecticut. Since the announcement, city residents have come to bold defense of the library and have called on Yale to ensure a Forward Together budget through an increased voluntary payment.
“The crisis budget included the closing of Mitchell Library,” Elicker told the News. “It also included the closing of a senior center, a firehouse, a 7.75 percent tax increase, 2.25 million dollars in layoffs — a very large list of many difficult decisions. And while there’s understandably been a lot of concern about the library, these are hard decisions across the board that nobody wants to make.”
Still, the Board of Alders must begin crafting a finalized budget in four days. Are they prepared to do so?
The City, The State and The University: passing a budget in the dark
Passing the “Forward Together Budget,” as Elicker has stressed from the day it was announced, requires funding from the State and the University. But budget deliberations by the Finance Committee will conclude by the end of May. During this month, the committee will discuss the budget and make amendments, turning Elicker’s proposed budget into one that the Alders will ultimately vote on.
And with the end of the month approaching, it is still unclear which of the suggestions from Elicker’s budget proposals the Board will ultimately choose to implement.
On March 1, when Elicker made his budget announcement, he described himself as “cautiously optimistic” for something akin to the “Forward Together Budget,” based on conversations he has had with Yale University administrators. On Thursday, over two months later, he gave a similar forecast.
“We’re having positive conversations with the University, and I’m cautiously optimistic that those conversations will lead to something,” he told the News. “I am optimistic that we will be able to land closer to the ‘Forward Together Budget’ and not need to make some of the dramatic cuts and suffer the significant tax increase in the ‘Crisis Budget.’”
At the beginning of the budget debate, the “Crisis Budget” and Forward Together budget were presented as a dichotomy — two separate visions for the city. In reality, they present two extreme situations, Elicker said: a perfect world where the city can cease any cuts to services and a very imperfect world which includes many. The Mayor said he expects the actual budget to land somewhere between the two. However, the question remaining is which budget the final proposal will lie closer to.
Ward 22 Jeanette Morrison, a member of the Finance Committee — which will deliberate the budget in the coming weeks — told the News that the two budgets presented by the mayor are simply a guideline for the Alders to follow. Ultimately, she said, the Board of Alders “are the financial authority of the city.”
“The reality is, when the mayor provides us with this budget … it is our job to listen to the community, look at the needs and create our budget, the budget we want to approve,” Morrison said. “The mayor just provides us with a proposal. Our job is to look at what we believe is best.”
But the Board will have to make their decisions without several key pieces of information. One of them is the question of how much, if at all, Yale will increase its contributions to the city. Another is the state contribution question. While the Connecticut General Assembly approved a new tiered Payment in Lieu of Taxes system in March — which could provide the Elm City with an estimated $49 million in funds — the state doesn’t actually vote on its budget until July. This is significantly later than New Haven’s budget deliberations.
According to Elicker, this creates another issue in the budget process. It means that the city government can only “speculate” as to what the city will receive, he said. This would be an issue in any year, but it is especially difficult when the construction of the city’s budget greatly relies on how much additional funds the Elm City will get.
“We always work on our budget prior to the state budget,” Morrison told the News. “The state is telling us different things, but nothing is solidified before it’s solidified.”
Now, the budget is in the Board of Alders Finance Committee’s hands. Once they make their amendments and vote on it, the budget will move to the full Board of Alders, where board members can again suggest and vote on amendments. During that process, City Hall can suggest a “technical amendment” that they ask the Board to approve — which usually includes any adjusted numbers accounting for changes to city finances since March. However, the process for technical amendments still occurs weeks before New Haven will know how much money it will receive from Connecticut state.
“The issue is timing,” Elicker said.
70 Percent: the Omnipresence of Mitchell Library
When Hannah Croasmun’s daughter was five years old, she participated in a summer reading club at Mitchell Library that libraries across the New Haven Free Public Library system, or NHFPL, facilitate. The essence of the program was that children would get a stamp each time they read a book, and when they reached a certain number of stamps, they would get a free book of their choice.
Eventually, Croasmun’s daughter reached this milestone.
“She goes, ‘I want a princess book,’ and I was like, ‘you can’t demand a book,’ and the librarian was like, ‘oh wait, let me see what we have,’” Croasmun told the News. “She went in the back and she got this giant princess book. I was so flabbergasted that they would go out of their way to do that for the kids.”
Croasmun’s anecdote about Mitchell Library is one of many that surfaced during the 2021 budget hearing cycle. Of those that testified in favor of keeping the library alive, the vast majority were Westville residents, and many were parents who shared personal stories about how the library has impacted their family.
“I feel like it’s my library,” Croasmun said. “I see friends there, and I just know it’s a well-used, well-loved library. I have a hard time believing that they would close it. There are a lot of children who need to use libraries.”
New Haven provides access to all public testimony submitted to the city on the budget. The testimony document the News obtained contains over 80 testimonies over over 140 pages. These testimonies clustered around a set of core issues: there were four testimonies focused on Yale’s contribution to the city, five focused on safe streets and 13 focused on the climate crisis. But the number of testimonies focused on Mitchell was astounding — 63, over 70 percent of all testimony, even though the “Crisis Budget” includes cuts to a plethora of services. In building closures alone, there would also be a senior center and a fire station closing, on top of a 7.75 increase in taxes. So why did Mitchell get 70 percent of public testimony?
“It’s hard for me to speculate on that,” Elicker said in response to the question. “I’ve heard a lot of ‘why would you even think about cutting a library,’ but I’ve also heard from people, ‘why would you even think about raising taxes by 7.75 percent, and there’s certainly a lot of people on East Shore that are concerned about the senior center. Ultimately, budgets are about how much money we have to spend on things. And if we don’t have enough money, we have to cut things.”
The closest there is to a Westville scholar may be Richard Canalori, who designed an entire curriculum about the history of the neighborhood. According to Canalori, some of the enthusiastic support around the library stems from the fact that “the library literally is the center of Westville.”
Canalori said at the epicenter of Westville is what is now called Soldiers Park — but the locals call it Library Park. Canalori grew up in the community, and as a teacher he would bring students to Mitchell to help them with their research projects.
“As I taught for several years in New Haven, I made it a point that every one of my students had a library card and their parents,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine an educational system without a library. Now that we have the internet and so many other things that require research, the library has become so much more — it’s about the media, it’s about applying for jobs.”
And beyond that, he said, the library is a cornerstone of the community and a meeting space. Overally, Canalori called it a “disaster” if the library were to close.
Elicker stressed that the closure of Mitchell Library remains a strong worst-case scenario.
“I will be the first to say that I am going to do everything I possibly can to prevent those cuts from happening,” he said.
Budget Cuts and Brewing Campaigns
On Thursday afternoon, Karen DuBois-Walton, former President of Elm City Communities, New Haven’s housing authority, stood in the middle of Fair Haven’s Quinnipiac River Park and celebrated the launch of her mayoral campaign. The City Hall veteran officially filed her campaign paperwork earlier this week, after previously spending eight weeks in an exploratory committee.
During the exploratory phase, DuBois-Walton spent time speaking to New Haveners and focused on police accountability. But there was one thing DuBois-Walton had avoided while running her exploratory committee: calling out Elicker, her opponent for the Democratic nomination in the mayoral election this fall.
On Thursday, that changed.
“New Haven has never been more ready to rectify these inequities,” she told the crowd, referencing racial and economic disparities present especially in Fair Haven, where she gave her address. “But we need leadership that’s able to do so. We need a mayor with the skills, leadership and experience to make change. And our current mayor does not meet the moment.”
DuBois-Walton particularly emphasized the Elicker administration’s handling of the budget crisis, which she said failed to allocate attention toward police violence and instead wasted funds.
“At the Board of Education, we’ve seen discord when we needed consensus,” she said. “While struggling to balance the budget, we see wasted dollars spent — overspent on investigations rather than actions to implement police accountability measures. We’ve seen inaction, we’ve seen departures from the department, we’ve seen justifications made for excessive force. And we’ve seen messaging from leadership that totally misleads our community.”
Elicker will face two challenges this summer — a budget crisis and mayoral challenger who has already garnered up substantial support and boasted record fundraising numbers.
In an interview with the News, Canalori said he foresaw Mitchell Library’s potential closure having a significant impact on the looming election — especially since he said he had always perceived the Elicker administration to be “pro-education.”
“I find it hard to believe that it was even a consideration to close the library, because I always thought of the current administration as one resolved to have a good educational system, and libraries are at the core of it,” Canalori said. “I’m sure it would have an impact on the election if that is the position of the administration. I do think it would have an impact on voters like myself.”
But according to first quarter fundraising numbers, Elicker’s Westville support hasn’t changed much so far. He pulled the majority of Westville donations, and he has a history of having support in the neighborhood. In 2019, he won Westville just as he won other white neighborhoods in an election that was largely divided by race. Westville is among New Haven’s whitest neighborhoods.
But on top of that, Elicker believes that New Haven residents will understand that the choices he’s making are productive for the city’s long-run economic health. He told the News that “it doesn’t mean that everybody’s happy, but I’m going to do what I think is the right thing to do.”
Part of that, he said, is not facing the city’s crisis with short-term solutions, like borrowing money, which he asserted would create “way bigger problems” down the road.
“People want someone who’s gonna be honest with them,” Elicker told the News. “They want the city’s financial problems to be addressed, and not kicked down the road. That’s what I’m doing. As mayor, I don’t have the luxury of just saying something, but I have to actually do it as well. I spent a year on the campaign trail, talking about how I was going to tackle the city’s financial problems head on. And that’s what I’m doing.”
The first quarter fundraising numbers provided a snapchat of candidates’ support in January, February and March — but Elicker’s budget proposal was announced only during the last month of that period. The city will get its next glimpse at the state of the mayoral race in July, when second quarter fundraising numbers are released.
The final public hearing on the budget will take place on Monday.