Mayor hosts first town hall meeting on new city budget
Residents reacted to Mayor Elicker’s new proposed budget at a town hall on Wednesday night, where concerns about property tax increases dominated the discussion.
Nat Kerman, Contributing Photographer
It is budget season in New Haven again. In a virtual town hall on Wednesday night, residents had their first chance to voice their opinions, pressing Mayor Justin Elicker on rising property taxes, infrastructure investments, city employee wages and zoning reform.
Elicker unveiled the proposed budget for fiscal year 2022-23 during a press conference at City Hall last Tuesday. The optimistic no-cuts budget relies on an influx of funding from the federal American Rescue Plan, the state’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT program and Yale’s increased voluntary contribution. Elicker also announced plans for a phased-in increase in property taxes over the next five years, the result of a recent revaluation of city property values.
After an explanatory presentation by Elicker, the floor was opened to questions. Elicker, Chief of Staff Sean Matteson, Acting Controller Michael Gormany and Acting Tax Assessor Alex Pullen responded to comments from over two dozen residents.
“[The budget is] one of the most important jobs I have as mayor,” Elicker said. “I’m trying to balance providing services that I think are important for all residents in the city with our ability to pay. … We want more sidewalks to be fixed, we want the trees to be trimmed, we want public safety, we want youth programs — so many things that residents want in the best interests of our city. It’s a tough thing to balance.”
Under the new budget, the city’s general fund expenditures will total about $633 million, a $26.8 million increase from the previous year. With these extra funds, Elicker plans for the city to hire 25 new employees — working in housing inspection, youth services and technology — and keep public libraries open seven days a week. Investments in public safety and the New Haven Police Department will also increase.
In his presentation at the virtual town hall, Elicker emphasized that the increases in the budget are predominantly a result of greater “fixed costs,” including police and fire pension funds, debt services and medical costs. Amid the pandemic, he said, the city’s contributions to employee medical care have had to rise “dramatically” — projected to increase by $6.5 million in this coming year.
Elicker referenced the “serious financial challenges” that the city has faced in the past years, particularly in the previous budget season in which pandemic-time deficits, debt and insufficient funding from the state and Yale led him to create two separate proposals.
The “crisis budget” would have taken effect if the status quo was maintained in terms of Connecticut and the University’s financial contributions. This plan included the closure of a number of public buildings, layoffs of city employees and a tax hike of 7.75 percent.
In the end, however, the alders passed the “Forward Together” budget, which did not have these planned cuts and tax increases. This was only possible through both a more conservative amendment of this budget and the securing of approximately $59 million in additional revenue from Yale, the state and Yale New Haven Hospital.
“Some of the people that I have heard from have said, ‘You got all this money from the state, you got all this money from Yale — Where’s my tax decrease and where are the additional services?’” Elicker said. “Unfortunately, we still face increasing fixed costs. … The additional money from the state helps us address some of those natural financial problems to close that gap, but really didn’t allow us to do a lot more in this year’s budget.”
He asked his listeners to “imagine if we did not get that 60 million additional dollars,” explaining that it was only narrowly that they were able to maintain the status quo.
Patricia Wallace, Dwight neighborhood resident and former director of elderly services, questioned the priorities of Elicker’s budget for this year. She praised the increase in state and Yale funding as a way to “generate more sources of revenue to deal with some of the very scary numbers with pensions and debt,” but pushed Elicker to invest more into paying off New Haven’s debts.
“Can we try to be restrained and wait a little bit, get the debt levels down, really make that the policy priority?” Wallace said. “After some of that house has been put in order, then begin to look at enhancing services, which of course we would all love. But I think, in most households, you try to balance the budget and not spend money for the fancy stuff, the wish list, until you’ve paid the basics.”
Elicker answered by explaining that he had “rejected almost everything” that department heads had proposed during the preparation of this budget due to financial concerns. He said that the current budget has a “very, very minor increase in programming in areas that I put out there because I stand by them.”
He brought up the hiring of school nurses for every school as an example of these small-scale changes that he saw as immediately necessary.
The Board of Alders is currently finalizing the schedule for the budget season’s public hearings and workshops. Last year, the budget was approved on May 26.
Elicker’s presentation concluded with a discussion of New Haven’s property revaluation, which is required every five years by the state of Connecticut. According to Elicker, this external process found a 32.6 percent increase in property values across the city, which will have to correlate with significant increases in property taxes. Chapel West, West River, Fair Haven and Newhallville will see the most dramatic rises.
With hopes of softening the impact of this tax hike, the city will conduct a phase-in that divides the increase across five years — a 50 percent increase in taxes would occur in 10 percent intervals, for example. The mill rate, or ratio of taxation per dollar in property value, will also decrease from 43.88 percent to 42.75 percent.
Many present on the Wednesday night Zoom expressed their concerns about the planned property tax hike and the impact that it would have on the affordability of housing in New Haven.
Local landlord Nitsan Ben-Horin questioned whether New Haven’s properties had been overassessed in this year’s valuation compared to neighboring areas like Westville. He also raised his fears that the significant tax increases would put pressure on landlords to raise rents and make housing in New Haven less affordable, comparing it to a “panic button.”
“[A landlord] is going to say, well, in four or five years this is where I’m going to be, so let me start raising the rents now before I fall behind,” Ben-Horin said. “Because let’s face it, if your taxes went up to 60 percent, there’s no other way to pay it than increasing rents.”
While Elicker claimed that the five-year phase-in would hopefully alleviate some of the burden on landlords, he shared Ben-Horin’s concern about increasing rents in previously affordable neighborhoods like the Hill. On the tax assessment side of the issue, Pullen emphasized that the revaluation process has to be certified by an external board for accuracy — he also mentioned the ability of residents to reach out to the Board of Assessment Appeals.
Ben-Horin responded by sharing that he had participated in two of these appeals processes, calling them a “travesty” due to their inefficiency. Other participants soon messaged in the Zoom chat to corroborate Ben-Horin, calling the process “worthless” and the assessment staff “uncaring.”
Maurice Holness questioned why the property tax increases were not being accompanied by increases in wages for city employees, given that the cost of living in the city would become less affordable over the course of the phase-in.
“You want more taxes, we want more services, but the wages aren’t matching, it doesn’t balance,” Holness said. “For our hard-working teachers, paraprofessionals, security officers and food service staff, those persons are probably most affected and most impacted by this. I look at your budget and your presentation for the Board of Education and the increase that you propose — does that increase really match a livable wage for a lot of those persons?”
The next city budget town hall will occur in-person on March 15 at 6 p.m., in the cafeteria of Career High School.