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Harp Administration Grilled On New Positions

by Thomas MacMillan | Mar 21, 2014 8:48 am

(20) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: City Hall, City Budget

Thomas MacMillan Photo Mayoral staffers looking to convince lawmakers to create a new four-person grant writing department faced a question from East Rock Alder Anna Festa: Why not try it before you buy it?

Instead of creating a permanent new department, Festa (pictured) asked, wouldn’t it be better to hire a private grant-writing firm for a year, just to see if it’s really a good idea?

It wouldn’t be feasible to contract out a whole department’s work for a full year, respond Chief of Staff Tomas Reyes.

That exchange came during Thursday evening’s meeting of the Board of Alders Finance Committee, which convened in City Hall for one of a series of meetings on the mayor’s proposed $511 million budget. Alders pressed city officials on just why they need more staff in the mayor’s office and in the clerk’s office.

Mayor Toni Harp’s proposed budget, for the fiscal year starting July 1, would raise taxes by 3.8 percent. Alders are expected to try to reduce or eliminate that unpopular tax hike before they approve a final budget at the end of May. New staff positions can add to the most costly portions of the city budget by locking the city into pension, salary, and health benefits payments for years to come.

Thursday’s budget meeting was the first of four in which city departments have a chance to justify their piece of the budget pie. The Finance Committee heard testimony Thursday from the Office of Legislative Service, Mayor’s Office, Registrar of Voters, City Clerk, Corporation Counsel, disability services, Fair Rent Commission, and Department of Finance.

Holmes: Prove It

Reyes and policy analyst Michael Harris sat to testify on behalf of the mayor’s office. Reyes said the office’s budget proposal for the coming fiscal year is not very different from the current year’s — except for some new positions.

The mayor is asking for a new legislative director position and a new bilingual receptionist. She also wants to create a four-person grant-writing department, to seek out federal and state funding that the city doesn’t currently have the resources to pursue.

The new positions would increase the mayor’s office budget by nearly 50 percent, from around $900,000 to about $1.3 million.

The mayor has also proposed creating those positions in the current fiscal year, a proposal that’s also currently before the Finance Committee.

 

“We strongly feel that the Office of Development and Policy is a necessary part of this budget proposal,” Reyes said in reference to the four-person grants office.

Harris said the mayor is committed to seeing the new department pay for itself — to raise more money than it costs the city.

The Board of Ed uses an outside company to write grants, said Festa. “Why shouldn’t we do that for a year, before we have to have a department?” Or, why not train department heads to write grants better?

“It’s really hard to justify these positions, not knowing how much we’d be getting from grants,” Festa said.

With the city’s current staffing levels, department heads lack the resources to know even what grants they’re missing, Harris said. “We’re never going to know what grants we’re going to get until we apply for them.”

The mayor wants the new department in her office so that it can work across departments, Reyes said.

“I get it. I understand it,” Festa said. “But we can hire a contractor to do the same without having to pay for medical benefits and pensions. Maybe we should try that to get an idea of what grants can be out there before we establish a whole department of four people.”

“We respectfully disagree with that notion,” Reyes said. “It would be difficult to deal with a vendor doing that on a full-time basis.”

East Rock Alder Jessica Holmes asked for numbers: “It would be helpful to see a cost analysis of contract versus full-time staffers.” The idea of testing out the grant department is “compelling,” she said. “If it’s not going to work, I need to know why.”

Reyes agree to come up with that information.

“Have you found any other city or town that has a grant writing department that’s self-sustaining?” asked Nehallviille/Prospect Hill Alder Mike Stratton.

“We can get that information,” Harris said.

After the meeting, Hill Alder Jorge Perez, president of the Board of Alders, said he hasn’t yet decided if he will support the mayor’s grant-writing department proposal. “Historically, I have a very hard time to approve new positions when we have tax increases.”

”It’s Filing Things”

The question of adding new staff to the budget arose again when City Clerk Mike Smart (pictured) sat to testify. As with the mayor’s office budget, he said his budget is similar to last year’s, with an additional position.

Smart is looking to restore an assistant clerk position to his office’s staff, a position that existed until 2012.

Smart explained what happened: In 2012, his predecessor “illegally removed a position,” which led to a grievance filed by the Local 3144 managers union. “When I got elected this year, I got dropped in my lap, a settlement to restore that position.”

Smart called up Cherlyn Poindexter, president of Local 3144, to elaborate. She explained that a year and a half ago, the assistant clerk position — a 3144 member — was removed and an “election specialist” position — part of local 884 — was created.  “We filed a grievance because someone took our work and subcontracted it out to another bargaining unit.”

In the settlement of that grievance, in January, the city’s head of labor relations agreed to restore the 3144 position — the assistant clerk — and keep the 884 position — the election specialist.

Since then, the election specialist position has been vacant. The job has now been posted, beginning a hiring process to fill the position again.

Edgewood Alder Evette Hamilton sought clarification. “These two people will be doing the same job but in two different areas?”

It’s two different jobs, Poindexter said. “One is clerical; the other is supervisory.”

“Why can we not eliminate the election specialist position and recreate the other one?” Perez (pictured) asked. He said he could understand having the assistant clerk, since it was historically a position in the clerk’s office. But the other position is vacant and was only recently created. “Do we really need both positions?”

“Yes,” Smart said. “It’s critical.”

“In the event the deputy clerk is on vacation or out sick, there’s no one in the office to supervise the office,” he said. “They do a lot of the day-to-day typist work” and would help with “outreach to the community” to “promote the office” and make it run more efficiently, Smart said of the clerical 884 position.

Perez said he could see that the city is legally obligated to recreate the assistant clerk position, given the outcome of the grievance. “I don’t agree we’re required to keep both.”

 

Since he took office in January, Smart said, “in my observation, we’re short on staff.”

Smart said he has five staff people in the office. Having the assistant clerk and the elections specialist would cut down on overtime. “This is a very important office,” he said. “We’re responsible to over 400 state statutes.” The office maintains a library with records going back to the 1600s. It takes care of land records, deeds, licensing. “There are a lot of components,” he said.

After the meeting, Stratton said he wasn’t convinced by Smart’s pitch for more staff. Stratton repeated a proposal he’s made to eliminate even Smart’s position, and have the deputy clerk run the office. “I just think it’s an arcane position.”

The work of the clerk’s office is “not tremendously complicated,” Stratton said. “It’s filing things.”

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posted by: robn on March 21, 2014  10:37am

New Haven city government has more workers per capita than almost every other city in the US. Its doesn’t need to get bigger it needs to get smaller.

posted by: Brian V on March 21, 2014  10:51am

I think a one year test is a great idea and absolutely ‘feasible’ and see nothing that “would be difficult to deal with a vendor doing that on a full-time basis.”

Thank you to Anna Festa, Jessica Holmes & Mike Stratton. Nice to hear some smart questions and possible solutions from the BOA.

posted by: Honest in New Haven on March 21, 2014  10:52am

The argument that a grant-writing office will pay for itself is flawed because state and Federal grants will not allow for recovery of costs to pay grant writers.  Any person who has ever written a state or Federal grant can tell you that.  Costs for salaries, overhead, and even indirect costs must be related to the work of the grant.  Period.

As for the new position in the City Clerk’s office: really???  How “critical” can a position be if it has been vacant for so long?

posted by: cedarhillresident! on March 21, 2014  11:52am

I have to agree with everyone. To add more staff is down right crazy and any alder that approves this (as is down right wrong). I say do the one year test with a vendor (BOE uses one how hard can it be to just use that vendor) If it worth then go foward we can decided. But to create 4 new positions is down right irresponsible.

I am thankful that we have so alders that are finally thinking and not just doing what they are told. BRAVO to all who are stepping up this year for the PEOPLE that pay the bills!

posted by: connecticutcontrarian on March 21, 2014  12:39pm

Why do we need an entire grantwriting office/staff? Wouldn’t it be much more cost-effective to hire one Grants Officer for the City who could liase with the other department heads/officials?

posted by: alex on March 21, 2014  12:40pm

It’s penny wise and pound foolish not to approve the City Hall positions. The City Clerk positions I’m not so sure.

Contracting out grant-writing would be a mistake. Instead of hiring incredibly talented people, who would command much higher salaries in the private sector, and who have roots and connections in the community, we’ll spend just about the same amount to hire some “consulting” firm that probably has many other clients applying for the limited funds at stake.

Toni Harp knows how state government works. If she thinks this grant will pay for itself, why not give that a try? If it doesn’t, then hold her accountable.

New Haven’s city government has a chronic understaffing problem. Departments across the city have suffered from cuts over the years, and morale among city employees has suffered as a result. The per capita employee statistic is misleading (Robn and I have had it out about this before), especially considering that Robn (and others) have made the point that New Haven is responsible for a disproportionate share of social services in the state because of its demographics.

Cutting government jobs doesn’t make needs go away. If anything, letting get worse is more expensive.

Of course it’s difficult to approve new positions when there’s a tax increase. Personally, I especially understand the Alders’ perspective on the City Clerk positions. But the grant writing office makes sense.

The doomsday predictions are hyperbolic—New Haven has several active market-rate housing developments, is receiving even more state funding this year (it has successfully become a political issue), and property tax reform seems to be on the agenda (see Sharkey and Looney’s proposals). The Alders should give Toni Harp the chance to push her agenda by approving the grant writing office.

posted by: anonymous on March 21, 2014  12:56pm

The main problem with the new positions is that they will be filled with insiders from the Harp/Smart campaigns.

By contrast, if a national search were conducted—perhaps led by an impartial search committee from other area cities, universities & nonprofits who are familiar with grant writing and grant evaluation—then the new positions might not be such a concern to the general public.

If these high-paying positions are mainly designed to be a political reward for friends, then they seem like a waste of money.

posted by: webblog on March 21, 2014  12:58pm

The header word grilled is too stronger word as it applies to the alder’s line of questioning. It can be closer described as can you, will you please and get back to me when you can.

The proposal(s) regarding positions is relevant(currently 9 positions, proposed 15, for a plus 6. Costing appox. 376K.

However, it is not relevant in the overall scheme when measured against the excessive increase in spending of 13.7M.

The problem continues to be spending. Not one alder, according to this report, challenged the various departments to find spending decreases. They were content with finding ways to otherwise justify the Mayor’s office positions. It makes no sense to perform a trial run for the balance of this budget year. For only five months there will be no results to ccompare, the administration will simply ask for more time until the whole thing is forgotten and a new subject will be on the table.

Neither the mayor’s office nor the board has ever, in the past twenty years, complained about the lack of grants coming into the city.

The city’s special grant fund budget is 26.6M, the Board of education special grant fund is 112.5M, someone must be performing this task. That’s not to mention the grants pursued by the health, police and Economic development departments each year.

This plain and simple is the building of another layer of bureaucracy.

Just guess who is being taking for a ride, while the alders are looking the other way?

posted by: Pantagruel on March 21, 2014  1:19pm

Glad to see push back.

I’d consider looking to Yale for pto bono grant writing support. Why even pay for one year? Yale should be motivated to provide services that would alleviate some of the tax Yale pressure. Aside from institutional resources, there’s all those students at the School of Management, some of whom are looking for internships, practicums, etc.

And I just checked Yale website, and there’s a whole grant writing establishment, and Tuesday, March 25, is the next monthly workshop on grant writing.

Think different. Not the sane old same old.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on March 21, 2014  2:13pm

Grant writing cannot directly pay for itself.

The argument for exclusively grant writing positions is that people who’s jobs are dedicated to searching out grants and applying for them are more likely to apply to and get more grants than someone’s who has other responsibilities in addition to grant writing such as department heads. Theoretically, grant writers may be able to bring in additional funding to the city that would otherwise be funded through local tax dollars, which could 1) incude grantlist growth that without the grant would not have occurred or 2) provide another funding source for a position that would otherwise need to be provided locally through taxes. Grant writing could potentially lead to long-term cost savings, but I haven’t seen any hard evidence that Harp’s proposal would actually do that. Perhaps a trial run for a year with a grant writer, then a trial run without one and a report about the results would be appropriate.

posted by: Brutus2011 on March 21, 2014  3:49pm

Cut spending.

posted by: Over taxed,Taxpayer on March 21, 2014  4:54pm

It’s absolutely irresponsible and galling-  to be adding more debt and positions, when your asking constituents to again pay more Property taxes ; the property taxes should be going down , rather than up; but it will never happen because leadership will never have the guts to close and cut back gluttonous like departments and personnel that suck the life out of tax payers who are forced to be financially prudent and count pennies, while government outrageously and wastefully spends money as if it was their own to spend.
to spend.

posted by: NewHavenTaxTooHigh on March 21, 2014  11:49pm

When will meetings be held where the general public will be allowed to comment?

posted by: Bradley on March 22, 2014  6:49am

I think it makes sense to develop a grant-writing capacity in the mayor’s office and have someone there who speaks Spanish fluently. But there are a variety of ways to accomplish this. As a compromise between the mayor’s proposal and Festa’s idea, the city could contract with a grant-writer and budget for a support staffer. If this worked well, the city could create a full-fledged department. If it did not, it would not renew the contract and could transfer the support person. Similarly, the city could transfer a current bilingual receptionist in City Hall (I assume that least some of the current receptionists speak Spanish) and move the current receptionist in the mayor’s office to a position where that ability is less important.

posted by: TheGrantsmanshipCenter on March 22, 2014  2:54pm

I’d like to offer a suggestion: the city might consider a free alternative—a model we’ve been providing for more than 40 years. The Grantsmanship Center partners with all kinds of govt offices, nonprofits and universities to provide grant proposal training at no cost to the host. We developed this hosting model (copied by others, never replicated) precisely to meet this kind of need for critical funding when community resources are tight.  We are currently partnering with other cities, including Philadelphia and Los Angeles, which face these same challenges.

Contractors paid to write proposals can certainly bring benefit but it’s true, they cannot be paid from the funds which they help obtain. How to pay for them when budgets are already tight? Great idea to also check out the resources at Yale, including training that they may offer.

Training city staff builds capacity within the city itself so those who already know the city well learn to work with colleagues, find appropriate funders, & write effective proposals. No magic bullet and yes, those who gain this knowledge and skill will need time released from other duties to use it. But they don’t require the time to ‘get up to speed’ with city needs & programs.

Happy to discuss further—don’t want this message to sound self-serving. Just couldn’t not speak up in case we can help. The host org provides space, logistical support & help with promotion (we reimburse for costs)  for training open to the public & in return receives up to 3 full scholarships to 5-day training that covers the whole grant process. Training is very interactive where participants actually create draft proposals in class. We’re told regularly that the proposals written in class get funded which thrills us & is why we do this work. Love to help if we can. Cathleen Kiritz

posted by: Public-Inefficiencies on March 23, 2014  7:49am

Alex,
Again?  How can you say the city is understaffed when many statistics show we have some highest ratios of employees to residents?
Do you work in city hall?  Do you pay New Haven property taxes?  If you do pay taxes, are you OK with your taxes going up again?

Asking for more staff(grant writers) to ask for more money from typically other government agencies, state and federal, is just shifting our tax burdens from city to state to federal…..

The only thing I read in the budget that makes sense, if executed correctly, is upgrading the IT systems.  These types of projects typically increase efficiencies and reduce the need to increase staffing.

posted by: alex on March 23, 2014  12:53pm

Public-Inefficiencies,

I’ve talked about this before. Employees per capita is a misleading statistic. One can’t (1) complain that New Haven doesn’t get its fair share of revenue to deal with its disproportionate share of the state’s homeless, sick, disabled, etc *and at the same time* (2) complain that New Haven has too high a number of employees per capita. One is necessarily the result of the other; New Haven will always have a high per capita employment number as long as it has high municipal needs.

When you add in Connecticut’s lack of county government, employees per capita is a meaningless statistic. It makes for a good sound bite but doesn’t grasp the reality of New Haven’s situation and its chronic understaffing to meet city needs.

New Haven has greater needs, per capita, than other places. That’s why it has a higher amount of employees per capita (though if you adjust for the lack of any regional government in Connecticut we don’t even have that high of an employee per capita number).

No, I do not work in City Hall. Yes, I do pay property taxes—not because I own property, but because landlords pass that cost on to renters too. I don’t like to see taxes go up any more than anyone else. But there are short term cuts to spending that can cause long term negative consequences. Cutting spending and cutting government employees won’t make the needs they serve go away. It’ll pass the “cost” onto the most vulnerable among us.

As for shifting the tax burden, consider again that New Haven has a disproportionate share of people who are low-income. A shift in taxation burden from local to state, or state to federal, or local to federal, overall BENEFITS New Haven residents.

You don’t like high property taxes? Connecticut has a higher share of property taxes as a proportion of local+state revenue than any other state. Shifting the tax burden to state or federal levels is the only realistic way to bring property taxes down without hurting New Haven.

posted by: Public-Inefficiencies on March 23, 2014  2:06pm

Alex,
I remember your point about regional and county government influences on local taxes so take a look at the below comparison.  New Haven is not looking so good in this comparison either and I’m guessing Bridgeport is providing more services to its residents with less govt employees than New Haven. 

Fair point on grants spreading the tax burden to other cities, states but how about we look at getting rid of the waste too and stopping taxes in general.  The private sector is constantly looking to do more with less but the government looks to do more with more. 

CT City stats:
2011. Hartford. http://www.usa.com/hartford-ct-government.htm
42.1 Municipal Government Employees per Thousand Residents.
$2,376.1 Annual Municipal Government Payroll Burden per Resident.

2011. New Haven. http://www.usa.com/new-haven-ct-government.htm
38.7 Municipal Government Employees per Thousand Residents.
$2,199.5 Annual Municipal Government Payroll Burden per Resident

2011.  Norwalk http://www.usa.com/norwalk-ct-government.htm
32.1 Municipal Government Employees per Thousand Residents.
$1,818.9 Annual Municipal Government Payroll Burden per Resident.

2011. Stamford. http://www.usa.com/stamford-ct-government.htm
31.1 Municipal Government Employees per Thousand Residents.
$1,951.2 Annual Municipal Government Payroll Burden per Resident

2011. Bridgeport. http://www.usa.com/bridgeport-ct-government.htm
29.4 Municipal Government Employees per Thousand Residents.
$1,894.6 Annual Municipal Government Payroll Burden per Resident.cp

2011 New London. http://www.usa.com/new-London-ct-government.htm
27.6 Municipal Government Employees per Thousand Residents.
$1,590.3 Annual Municipal Government Payroll Burden per Resident.

posted by: alex on March 23, 2014  7:05pm

P-I,

I know you think that you have some sort of silver bullet with these inter-CT comparisons, but in fact they confirm what I’m talking about.

Bridgeport is the only comparable city that has fewer employees per capita. Stamford and Norwalk don’t have nearly the same level of poverty; New London is much smaller.

As for Bridgeport vs. New Haven, I would guess that Bridgeport, too, faces chronic understaffing. Either way, we’re both guessing… which is why I’m not so ready to jump to conclusions, when the people who face these issues every day repeatedly point to problems caused by understaffing.

I’m all for getting rid of government waste, but we should acknowledge the realities that cities like New Haven face. The arguments people on this website make about more equity between cities and suburbs are based on the notion that cities MUST employ more residents per capita than the suburbs.

A high level of employment per capita, therefore, isn’t necessarily evidence of government waste. The way to identify government waste is to look at the New Haven government and see where efficiencies can be found, not by comparing New Haven to other cities through misleading statistics.

posted by: ohnonotagain on March 25, 2014  7:11pm

No more hiring! This mayor is clearly a tax and spend person. The board of Alders need to stop allowing this type of new hires and get the city straightened out and not on the back of the taxpayers. Michael Smart is completely foolish making such an outrageous request. And as far as the grant writing department issue that should be part of a department heads job and many do so. Why would a mayor want to create a whole new department considering how costly that is. Where is her compassion for the taxpayers struggling to make ends meet.

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