Faced with the new mayor’s first big request, city lawmakers refused to get on board—until the administration can explain why it needs seven new staffers, and how it will pay for them.
That’s what happened Wednesday night in City Hall’s aldermanic chamber, where the Board of Alders Finance Committee convened to consider a budget request from Mayor Toni Harp’s office. The committee decided to table the matter rather than pass it along for approval by the full board.
Harp would like to create seven new positions. She would like to add a bilingual receptionist and a “legislative director” in the mayor’s office, and create a four-person “Office of Development and Policy.” She also wants to have a director for a new “Minority and Small Business Initiative.”
In order for those positions to exist in the current fiscal year, the Board of Alders would have to approve some changes to the budget. Michael Harris, the mayor’s liaison to the Board of Alders, said surplus grant money could fund the positions for the remainder of this fiscal year.
Alders objected to the fact that they received details of the plan only at Wednesday’s meeting and had no time to examine it before being asked to vote on whether to recommend the proposal to the full board. Alders also pointed out that the administration didn’t even provide them with job descriptions for the new positions, nor information on exactly how the administration proposes to pay for the positions in future fiscal years.
In public testimony, two budget watchdogs called the proposed new positions unnecessary and wasteful.
The committee voted unanimously to take no action on the proposals, effectively tabling the matter until its next meeting.
The incident shed some light on the working relationship forming between the Board of Alders and Mayor Harp, who took office Jan. 1. Despite alders’ near unanimous endorsement of Harp during her mayoral campaign, New Haven’s executive and legislative branches have not always been on exactly the same page this year. Harp apologized last month, for instance, for not taking input from alders before sending her legislative agenda to New Haven’s state delegation.
Wednesday’s meeting showed that the administration had again failed to keep lawmakers in the loop, this time on the details of the new positions.
Harris (pictured), the legislative liaison, made the pitch for the new positions. He started with the new Office of Development and Policy, which would have a director earning $116,000 per year, a senior development officer ($60,000), an administrative assistant ($40,000), and an analyst ($40,000).
The department would be charged with finding and applying for grants to help the city pay for services and capital projects.
“We’re trying to capitalize more on federal, state and private money,” Harris said. Since the federal government recently passed a budget for the first time in years, all sorts of grant opportunities are going to open up, he said.
The plan is for the new office to bring in more money than it costs the city.
Harris said the mayor is looking to add a new bilingual receptionist, earning $40,000 per year, and a legislative director, earning $80,000 and focusing on the city’s interaction with the state and federal government.
The new director of the Minority and Small Business Initiative would earn $80,000 and be charged with improving opportunities for such businesses.
For the rest of the fiscal year, the city would pay for the new staff members using unrestricted leftover money from a variety of old grants, Harris said. Alders were dubious about this process. Hill Alder Jorge Perez (pictured), president of the board, asked for certification that the money can be spent the way Harris claimed it can.
Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison asked how the city would pay the new staffers after the current fiscal year.
Harris said the administration hopes to “make space in the budget” by eliminating vacant jobs and transferring the salaries allotted to those positions. The development office would bring in more money than it costs the city, or it wouldn’t last, he said.
Morrison said she wants to make sure the new positions are really necessary, because once they are filled, it’s much harder to do away with them. “It’s easier to say no to a no-face than to a face.” Once it’s a person and not just a position, “saying, ‘you gotta go’ becomes harder. I don’t want anyone to have to lose their job.”
Perez asked for job descriptions for the positions, saying that that’s standard procedure when trying to convince the board to create a new position. “Why are we having such a hard time getting information?”
Hill Alder Andrea Jackson-Brooks, voiced the same frustration: “I’m almost at the point of not wanting to take the item up.”
Alders also asked for information about how many grant writers the city currently employs, how much the city pays them, and how successful they are.
Mayoral staffer Becky Bombero said the city currently has only one grant writer, who works part-time on contract in the police department.
She urged the committee to move the proposal along immediately or risk losing out on grant opportunities. She said the next four weeks will see “the highest volume of federal notices of funding in the last five or six years.”
The quicker the board approved the new positions, the quicker the new development office can get ahold of those dollars, Bombero said.
“The more prepared you are, the faster we can approve it,” Perez shot back.
East Shore Alder Al Paolillo asked why the proposed salary for the new department’s director is so high, as high as the chief administrative officer (CAO).
Compared to what the city pays for outside grant writing contractors, “this is pretty fair,” Bombero said.
Paolillo said he wants more than that, an explanation of why the new director would be worth more than the CAO, who has an essential job in the city.
Perez commended the administration for looking for more sources of revenue. But he said alders need more information to justify the expense of creating seven new positions, since alders have to answer to their constituents.
Before and after administration staffers testified, the committee heard comments from budget watchdogs Gary Doyens and Ken Joyner, both of whom spoke out against the new positions.
Joyner (pictured) called the new positions “duplicative,” saying that other workers in the city are already doing all the work of the new positions. Almost every department already applies for and receives grants, he said. “We’re already performing those functions.”
Doyens cautioned that the city might not want to win every grant that’s out there; it might end up with unnecessary stuff to take care of. “That’s how we ended up with the boat for the fire department.”
Doyens (pictured) said the city doesn’t need a director of minority and small business development. Other city agencies are working on that project already, he said. A new legislative director position in the mayor’s office is similarly unnecessary, he said.
“This city is broke,” he said. It would be “a terrible decision” to add more staff.
At the end of the meeting, Perez noted that the committee had had a number of unanswered questions about the administration’s proposed new staff positions. He moved to adjourn the meeting without voting on the matter. The committee voted unanimously to adjourn.