Final Budget Passed; Strong School Plan Killed

Markeshia Ricks Photo For the first time in decades, New Haven’s legislative body voted to kill a new school, a plan to build a $45 million home for the Strong 21st Century Communications Magnet and Lab.

The plan’s death knell came as the Board of Alders approved a new city general operating budget and new capital projects budget at a special meeting at City Hall Tuesday night.

It was a bad night for the Harp administration, on two fronts.

Alders unanimously approved a $507.9 million general operating budget that eliminated six of the 19 new positions that Mayor Toni Harp had included in the proposed budget she delivered to the board in March. (Read more about the eliminated positions here.) The budget keeps taxes steady, with the mill rate remaining at 41.55.

They also unanimously approved a $104 million capital fund budget that eliminated the $10.6 million that was needed from the city to green light the new Strong School on Southern Connecticut State University’s campus.

Legislative Branch Exerts Independence

The Harp administration had lobbied both publicly and privately to revive the school deal after an alder committee removed it from the budget. Last week Mayor Harp met privately with board President Tyisha Walker to try to reach a compromise.

It was the first time since the mid-1990s, when the city launched its now $1.6 billion program to renovate or rebuild all its schools, that one of the projects has been rejected by a vote of the full Board of Alders (or, as it used to be known, the Board of Aldermen). In 2012, after an alder committee voted no, officials withdrew a plan to build a new home for Hyde School on Hillhouse High’s property. Alders Tuesday night said they acted out of fiscal responsibility in the Strong School case. They argued the city shouldn’t take on more debt for school projects, and that there’s enough work to do maintaining the new buildings that have come on line.

Despite some opposition from a handful of alders who went on the record supporting building a new Strong School at the board’s last regular meeting, there were no opposing votes or abstentions Tuesday night.

School officials and parents were again out in force at City Hall to support the new school, but board leaders remained firm in their decision. (Read more about that here.) In light of Tuesday night’s vote, the city will miss a deadline to qualify for around $35 million in state money that would have gone toward building the school.

The plan’s public support waned in recent weeks as leading alders made the case—at least as measured by the ongoing tally of an Independent “True Vote.” Readers had supported the new school when officials first announced it. But by Wednesday morning, when 1,612 votes had been recorded, only 34 percent remained in favor.

Dixwell Alder and President Pro Tem Jeannette Morrison (pictured) reiterated people should not view the school vote as a vote against “children,” as some advocates suggested. She pointed to approvals in the new budget cycle for nearly $5 million in repairs to four existing new schools, money for school nurses, money for libraries and money to fund the pension and health care of city employees, including those working for the school district.

“We love children,” Morrison said. “But we have a responsibility to the whole city. No one is saying that the Board of Education can’t come back. We just can’t do it this year.”

Annex Alder Alphonse Paollilo Jr. said taking the step to not fund the school now means not further increasing the city’s debt load, which currently represents about 12-13 percent of all government expenditures. Going forward, this decision will have a positive impact on the city’s credit worthiness, he said.

“It just wasn’t possible,” Board President Walker said of supporting the school this year. “We had to consider the fiscal stability of the city.” She said alders are open to keeping the discussion about the school going with the mayor’s office and the Board of Education.

Harp legislative liaison Joey Rodriguez (pictured) said the mayor was disappointed that the alders didn’t support the Strong School project this year, but is committed to working toward getting the school approved next year.

Board of Education President Carlos Torre (pictured) said he too was disappointed in the vote and is committed to reviving the plan. He cited the commitment made now two decades ago to rebuild all of the districts schools to insure that children didn’t go to school in buildings that don’t meet their needs.

“The fact is, we’re going to spend more money patching up this school,” he said. “It’s inadequate and maybe unsafe.”

Alders have suggested that the school district find a way to transition students out of the existing Strong School building and redistribute the students to other, modern school buildings.

Torre said it’s a more complicated decision than that.

“It’s like if you were trying to find housing for a family,” he said. “It’s like taking your sons and putting them with families over here, and taking your husband and putting him in another family. You’d be breaking up families.”

Pension Obligations Covered

The final general fund budget, which takes effect July 1, ended up slightly bigger than the $506 million budget that Harp proposed. That’s because it fully funds the city’s pension and health care obligations for police, fire and other city employees, to the tune of an extra $2.2 million. The budget also funds four new school nurses and four new positions for libraries.

The budget grew Tuesday night by an additional $307,978 more than $506.7 million the alders’ Finance Committee had initially recommended, in order to accommodate some adjustments requested by the Harp administration. Those adjustments included changing one of two part-time positions for the Department of Transportation, Traffic and Parking to a full-time position, and increasing line items for several departments for “other contractual services,” legal fees and maintenance.

The additional costs will be covered by $156,800 generated from the Air Rights Garage and $151,178 from building permits, not by higher taxes, alders said. The adjusted transit position, which is a parking enforcement position, also is expected generate revenue for the city.

The capital projects budget, meanwhile, increased funding for sidewalk construction and rehabilitation, and police body cameras, though is smaller than the Harp administration’s proposed $112 million.

 

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 27, 2015  8:21am

Election time snake-oil being sold.Once they get back in office,Next year your taxes will go up and they will build a new school.

posted by: LookOut on May 27, 2015  9:46am

hallelujah!  is it possible that our elected officials are representing the views of the public.  Congrats to the new media (such as NHI) for making these issues public and creating the pressure needed to make the right decisions.

posted by: ADAK on May 27, 2015  9:52am

It’s such a pleasure reading 3/5ths comments.

posted by: Alderman Adam Marchand on May 27, 2015  10:42am

I commend my colleagues in leadership and on the Finance Committee for all their hard work during this budget cycle, and I echo our Majority Leader’s praise of Joe Clerkin, the City’s budget director.

We have passed a fiscally responsible budget that makes investments in necessary services and meets our obligations to our employees and residents.

I’m happy my colleagues supported the hiring of additional library staff and school nurses, and I’m very excited that we approved funds to create a Food Systems Director position.

posted by: FabFairHaven on May 27, 2015  11:26am

We don’t need more schools, they need to review the administration budget.
Our New Haven kids need quality no more schools.
Torre said…. You’d be breaking up families.” I loved this quote, because it took me four years for my two kids to be in the same school.
Sorry but the parents that care, don’t believe in the administration anymore.
PS. I have to say that I have no problems with the schools that my kids attend, East Rock Magnet school ROCKS. I Thanks them all for their daily hard work.

posted by: robn on May 27, 2015  11:32am

Thank you BOA,

Whether or not prior pension commitments were made under bright light of day (or dead of night in return for votes) we’d better begin a program of downsizing by attrition or we’ll never be able to meet those prior commitments. Also stop gold plating future benefits; a defined contribution retirement is fair to both worker and taxpayer.

posted by: darnell on May 27, 2015  11:42am

What is a “Food Systems Director”?

posted by: Fairhavener on May 27, 2015  11:46am

I propose that next year they also cut the budget for busing our children EVERYWHERE! It’s counterproductive, it cuts $ from the overall school budget, and it insists to our children at an early age that basic human functions—like walking places—are not suitable activities.

posted by: mechanic on May 27, 2015  12:17pm

So, the rest of the schools’ budget was approved as is?

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 27, 2015  12:54pm

posted by: robn on May 27, 2015 11:32am

Thank you BOA,

Whether or not prior pension commitments were made under bright light of day (or dead of night in return for votes) we’d better begin a program of downsizing by attrition or we’ll never be able to meet those prior commitments. Also stop gold plating future benefits; a defined contribution retirement is fair to both worker and taxpayer

You said the BOA was control by the unions?

posted by: FacChec on May 27, 2015  1:25pm

Let’s just cut right to the chase:
Grade “D”
In contradiction to alder Marchand statement “the alders should be congratulated for their hard work”. I see no reason what-so- ever to hand out false congratulations, or, for that matter pats on the back as alder Morrison is extolling in this article.
The “D” to the BOA is for their twisted effort to control general fund spending, the mayor proposed a $506M budget, the board approved an additional $307,978 by falsely claiming additional revenue of $156,800 generated from the Air Rights Garage and $151,178 from building permits.
Poor financial analysis, the air right garage is running behind current budget by $156,800 with two months left in the 15 budget year.
Building permits is currently running an $822K deficit with two months left in the 15 fiscal year.
So just how a skillful financial analysis like Joe Clerkin lead the Board down this left hand turn path. And why does not someone like Alder Marchand recognize this?
The Board congratulates itself for funding the pension and health care funds but defeats its effort by: adjustments that included changing one of two part-time positions for the Department of Transportation, Traffic and Parking to a full-time position that Harp proposed. That’s because it fully funds the city’s pension and health care obligations for police, fire and other city employees, and increasing line items for several departments for “other contractual services,” legal fees and maintenance.
Once you start increasing the reduced complement of employees, you increase the pension, health and workman’s comp obligation in difference to the savings payments you just made.
Grade"D” again.
In terms of the Capital fund budget, reducing the school construction of Strong by 10.6M while at the same time increasing the city contribution to the BOE by 3.3M and only placing 1.6M for sidewalks, leaves a lot of explaining to do. The BOE is not deterred by this set back; they will come back with it next year.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on May 27, 2015  3:34pm

Would someone ask Mike Stratton what this budget really means?
Was there ever an answer to all the questions he raised?
Property tax is still too high.
Add $.24 a gal gas tax, 6.5 sales tax, personal property tax, etc. - it’s still not working for me.
Consolidate local gov’ts into regional. It works in Mass.
Eliminate special treatment of all non-profit assets over $100,000 and income over $250,000.

posted by: Bradley on May 27, 2015  4:31pm

Dwightstreeter, while I’m entirely in favor of regionalization, it and the other changes you suggest would require legislation at the state level. Taxing Yale would require a constitutional amendment. None of this is going to happen anytime soon. Most legislators, Democrats as well as Republicans, represent suburban districts. The current system of towns providing most public services, funded by the property tax, works reasonably well for them and their constituents. I’m not endorsing the system but saying that it has a very strong political rationale.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on May 28, 2015  3:06pm

@Bradley: Taxing Yale would require changing State law, but not the Constitution.
The history of the Yale exemption may still be on its website.
Read it and weep.
RE taxes primarily fund schools. This is inequitable from the start. The City that paid for my education gets NO benefit from me now.
Education should be funded on an equal basis, whether State or Federal.
And a progressive, graduated tax on income should be restored.

posted by: Darwinism on June 1, 2015  11:18pm

Why invest in affordable childcare options or offer services to residents in need when we can lower the operating hours of libaries close after school programs and raise taxes…we didn’t need another building we needed quality in our buildings