Helene Grant, New Haven Academy and Hyde schools may not get new or renovated homes if a new budget-trimming proposal becomes law.
The proposal emerged Thursday night at a meeting of the Board of Aldermen’s Finance Committee. The committee began its final look at the mayor’s proposed $468.8 million budget. In the process, two lawmakers proposed an amendment that would prevent the city from borrowing $42 million to build the three new schools.
It was one of three amendments put forward by Aldermen Justin Elicker and Doug Hausladen at Thursday evening’s budget meeting. Click here to read two of them.
The Finance Committee gathered in City Hall for the penultimate in a series of meeting it has been holding on the proposed budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. The Committee will hold its final meeting on May 17, before the budget heads to the full board for a vote on May 29.
The committee discussed Elicker and Hausladen’s proposals, but did not vote on them. The committee will vote on those amendments—along with any new ones—and the rest of the budget at its May 17 meeting.
The committee did approve a measure that will allow the police chief to hire more cops. But it did not approve a plan to hire a new social-media-savvy communications manager for the police department.
In recent weeks committee has heard testimony from all city departments on why they deserve their piece of the budget pie. And lawmakers have heard from neighborhood taxpayers, many of whom have asked them to rein in spending and borrowing.
A number of taxpayers have specifically requested that the city not borrow $42 million to pay for the construction of three new or renovated schools: Hyde, New Haven Academy, and Helene Grant.
One of the proposed Elicker-Hausladen amendments addresses just that request. It would reduce the proposed $42.3 million in school-construction bonding to $0. The city can’t afford it, the aldermen argue.
School officials have testified that the building projects are essential because current facilities are inadequate.
Payments to debt continue to take up a large part of the city budget, Elicker said. “It’s time to slow that down.” Eliminating more borrowing is one of the easiest ways to do that, he said. There must be other options to deal with poor school facilities, ones that don’t entail borrowing tens of millions of dollars, he said.
Other aldermen suggested that the city could spend less money and do more modest renovations.
Elicker and Hausladen also put forward a budget amendment that would take out the proposed addition of 12 new job positions, saving $628,809. That amendment would save even more over the long run, if you factor in the pension and health benefit payments to which those new employees would be entitled, Elicker said.
Elicker and Hausladen’s plan would mean only six new positions are created instead of 18 as the mayor has proposed. The amendments would fund two new 911 dispatchers and four parking enforcement positions. The parking positions are for meter monitoring and would generate more revenue than eliminating them would save, Elicker said.
Among the positions the mayor has proposed funding that the amendment would not fund are two new positions in finance, a librarian, the police chief’s communications manager, a fire department drillmaster, a part-time clerk for elderly services, a deputy director for the Youth Services Department, three public works staffers, a project manager for the engineering department, and a senior loan officer for the economic development department.
“Once you have an employee, it’s really difficult to eliminate that position because all of us know that person and some of our constituents know that person,” Elicker said after the meeting. “Also, when you create a new position, you’re creating health and pension expenses for many, many years to come. ... One of the easiest things to do is eliminate positions that aren’t yet people.”
The pair of aldermen’s third amendment would compel the city to “conduct a statistical revaluation prior to Fiscal Year 2014-15 to be used to determine the taxable grand list for the Fiscal Year 2014-15 Budget.” That proposal is designed to “even out” property values, which spiked this year in several neighborhoods, causing some tax bills to skyrocket.
Communications Manager Nixed; Sidewalk Plan Propped
Also Thursday night, the Finance Committee considered an item affecting the current year’s budget for the police department. The committee voted to allow the chief to hire more police officers, but not to create and fill a new civilian position—a “Community Communications Manager.” When Chief Dean Esserman originally pitched the communications idea to the committee on Monday, aldermen balked and postponed a decision to Thursday night’s meeting.
The no vote means that the chief can’t hire a communications manager immediately. But the position is still in the budget for next year, unless the Elicker-Hausladen amendment is successful in removing it.
The Finance Committee also heard an update on a measure that its sub-committee has been working on—a plan for the equitable distribution of paving, tree-trimming, and sidewalk repair funds throughout the city. The idea belongs to Wooster Square Alderman Mike Smart, who pitched it as a way to give aldermen power over a major city-services deliverable, and take it out of the hands of the mayor.
Smart said negotiations with the administration on the proposal “went south” after a couple of meetings. Aldermen are still working on the plan, and passed a budget amendment in the meantime that will prevent the city from moving on any paving, tree-trimming, sidewalk repairs until aldermen have a new system for allocating the resources equitably.
The Independent reported live from the Aldermanic Chamber Thursday night. Read on for a live blog of the aldermanic action.
5:58 p.m.: Two minutes before the meeting starts. Aldermen are arriving. Committee Chair Andrea Jackson-Brooks is here, along with Aldermen Jorge Perez, Evette Hamilton, Al Paolillo, Jessica Holmes, and Justin Elicker.
6:02: Jackson-Brooks calls the meeting to order, reads the agenda. Aldermen Doug Hausladen and Jeanette Morrison walk in. Alderman Mike Smart has also arrived.
6:05: The first item on the agenda is Smart’s sidewalk proposal. Smart (pictured), not a member of the committee, sits to testify.
Smart reports on the work of the subcommittee. He says: The first two meetings went well, building up to a proposed ordinance. “Our third meeting went south.” Things went back to “hell in a hand-basket.” ... For decades the administration has used sidewalks, trees, street pavings, as a way of penalizing aldermen for not supporting the administration agenda. ... This should never happen again. ... There should be a transparent, participatory process. ... City law says aldermen have control over this. ... We’re dealing with a sidewalk budget of $1 million. ... The tree budget is $350,000. ... For street paving, $750,000 would be divided among 15 wards: Odd wards on odd years, even on even. ... Emergency paving and sidwalks: $150,000 each, to address emergencies. ... I have a constituent in Fair Haven who’s never had a sidewalk. How do you address that? We need an open process. In my ward, I would have an alderman’s night in—see what we can target.
6:15: Alderwoman Migdalia Castro arrives.
Smart continues to ask for support for the proposal. He says: It’s important that we pass this. It should be a fair process. ... I’ll take questions. I ask that we pass this, move this item.
6:17: Elicker: I’m looking at a huge area increase in my wards with a new, redistricted, ward map. I’m looking at taking on the landfill, the dump—a giant ward. Was there any discussion of how to manage that with a $60,000 sidewalk budget every two years?
Smart: A lot of people are looking at ward expansion. Maybe we’ll need more funding for this.
Elicker: Your wish is that we continue discussion and not vote on it?
Smart: I’m going to defer to colleagues.
Elicker: How do I deal with abutting two odd[-numbered] wards? [Elicker is in Ward 10.] What about sharing street repair work across wards?
Hamilton: Exactly. What if half a sidewalk is in my ward and then the other half in another ward? Issues like that need to be discussed. ... There should be adequate funding. This is a priority. The whole board needs to sit down and discuss it, because it effects all of us. ... Money is of key importance. We don’t have enough money. ... People’s taxes are going up $20,000 to $40,000, we should be able to tell them they can have a sidewalk. ... If you don’t know someone in public works, your sidewalk is not going to get repaired. “That stops now.” [She’s rapping on the table.]
6:23: Elicker: The criticism is that the mayor is politicizing things. Is there a possibility that by giving it to 30 aldermen, it’s going to be politicized also? Not with the current board, but maybe in the future, one or two aldermen might trade favors for sidewalks.
Morrison: The language says a group has to identify the need. We have the responsibility of giving the people a voice. I know someone who hasn’t seen her sidewalk or street fixed in 20 years. Ridiculous. ... “People have to beg and plead and give their first born to get a new sidewalk.”
Castro asks about the timing, even and odd: Maybe some people can wait a few years, based on street need.
6:27: Hausladen: If we’re going to have a trial period, it should be two years, not one. ... There was a Pavement Condition Index that ranked how bad things went. But there should be prioritization for busier streets.
Smart: That was the intent at the third meeting, to go over that. Things went south. ... President Perez gave me a couple of suggestions: Independent review to rank the need, and a committee process.
Hausladen: Legal responsibility for sidewalk repair—It’s the property owner’s responsibility, unless the problem is caused by the city.
Smart: Mostly it’s city tree roots that cause the problem.
6:31: Holmes: We’ve got a lot of the right sentiment going. A few things warrant further discussion. One is that the fund is divided equally among the 15 wards. There is going to be a variability of need. I hope we can craft language to deal with that. ... In my area there has been a lot of repaving due to sewer separation. In other wards, that’s not the case. Maybe they should be bumped up the list.
Perez: I agree that more dialogue needs to happen and it should be done quickly.
Smart: Who is better than the alderman to know what is best for his or her ward? I’m willing to work on crafting this more.
6:34: Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts (pictured) sits to testify: We spent over six hours working on this over three meetings. We agree on goals: transparency, equitable distributions. This coming year we have an increase in funding for sidewalk repair. I’ve heard the concerns about this being politicized. I’m sure that has happened in the past. As somebody concerned about integrity, I’d like to make sure we view this as a fair process. ... I’m going to outline a couple of issues. ... There’s great variability in size. I picked two wards, 1 and 17. Ward 1 has 473,000 square feet of streets. Ward 17 has over 2 million. “That’s a tremendous difference.” ... Same thing with condition. I took Alderman Elicker’s Ward 10, which recently had sewer separation. There’s 58,000 square feet there with a condition grade of less than 65. In Ward 17 it is 814,593 feet. Another big difference. ... “Just dividing things up equally between wards isn’t equal.” ... The amount left over for safety funds isn’t enough. We spend a lot on trip-and-fall hazards. Slab-grinding is helping us knock these out. ... I have other concerns with how this is going to be laid out. ... I think having aldermen have more of a role makes sense. A more transparent process makes sense. Resident input makes sense. “But I would urge that for infrastructure we don’t try to divide up the city too much. ... You really make it impossible to meet the infrastructure needs of the city.” “If we try to Balkanize this” it’s going to be more costly and less efficient and “it will leave our constituents frustrated.” ... The administration and aldermen should work together on this.
6:42: Perez asks a question about the communications manager: Would that person replace or join Officer Dave Hartman in communications?
Smuts: The chief intends to keep Hartman doing a lot of communications, probably more internally.
Elicker: This is an additional position?
6:44: No further public testimony. That section is closed.
Perez: More dialogue is needed on Item 1, the sidewalks, trees, paving item. ...
Perez proposes a policy amendment relating to Item 1. It says that the city will not spend any money on sidewalks, trees, or paving until aldermen have a spending approval policy in place. ... The subcommittee’s charge was only to report back in 30 days.
Morrison: Initially, that 30 days, that report was supposed to happen at the canceled April 25 meeting.
Castro asks for clarification.
Jackson-Brooks: This would hold all funding until we have a plan.
Perez: The amendment prevents the city from spending all the money until we have a plan.
Castro asks another question.
Perez: “I don’t understand your question, Migdalia.” This won’t affect any plan already approved.
6:51: Elicker: When are you planning to have deliberations?
Jackson-Brooks: May 17th.
Elicker: Why can’t we wait?
Perez: Good faith. Advanced notice.
Elicker: This has nothing to do with tree-planting? Just trimming? Can we put in language that says street trees are not affected?
Perez: Yes. ... If we pass this tonight, we can still shape it on the 17th when we meet again.
Elicker: So why do it tonight?
Perez: “It’s called democracy. It’s called keeping the peace.”
Elicker: What if we don’t figure it out? What if we don’t have a policy?
Morrison: Then we’ll take the proposal as it is to the floor.
Elicker: It just makes me nervous.
Jackson-Brooks: “This is sort of just like a protective device.” We could pick this apart all night, but let’s not.
Perez: We have between now and the 17th to improve this.
Elicker: Let’s then commit to voting on it on the 17th.
Jackson-Brooks: We need to act on it.
Morrison: We don’t want any games played with street, sidewalks, and tree-trimming.
6:57: Alderman Sergio Rodriguez is here in the audience, I just noticed.
Hausladen: Would you take a friendly amendment to add “trimming and stump-removal” after “trees”?
Paolillo: This is a place-holder to get something more permanent.
All vote to pass the amendment. The actual item, Smart’s proposal about sidewalks etc., is passed over.
6:59: Morrison circulates an amendment. She says: The ward sidewalk fund is $1 million. We asked that $150,000 be found to make that number. ... The ward tree fund has to be found. ... An additional $230,000 ... [Huh? I don’t understand what she’s talking about.] ...
Perez: When you have a dollar amount, it’s no longer a policy amendment. If you’re going to name a dollar amount, you need to find it. ... You’re on the record that you think we should find $230,000 for this. But this is not a policy amendment. You can’t just say “find.” You have to find it.
7:03: Jackson-Brooks: Next time is the new cops and the new communications manager.
The item is moved. Discussion.
One position or two for communications?
Hausladen: One is external. One is internal.
Perez: I’d like to delete the last paragraph, about the communications manager, because another amendment later on will be to eliminate all new positions. ... “The amendment is we’re giving the chief everything he wants except the new communications manager.” [That’s the motion now.] “Everything gets moved except that position.”
7:07: Castro: I completely support the approval of this to improve the police department and community policing.
Hausladen and Perez discuss 467 versus 494 positions.
Morrison: I think the new communications manager is important. There’s been a big disconnect between the community and the police department. ... Dealing with the police is hard. If you have a civilian as a liaison, it would be a good thing.
Elicker: I tend to agree with you, but I’m OK with what’s on the table. If we do decide to fund it, it will start July 1 anyway.
Paolillo: I’m in favor of the amendment.
7:11: Alderwoman Delphine Clyburn is here.
Paolillo: Communication is best when it’s local. We have district managers, who are spokespeople. ... I support the hiring of more cops. We probably don’t get to 467 in the next fiscal year. ... We also already have a city spokesperson. I’d much rather have my district manager doing outreach and forming block watches, rather than someone at 1 Union Ave.
Perez: About three years ago, Jessica Mayorga handled all communications. “She did a great job.” We have a deficit of $7.2 million. I have a feeling that it’s going to be lower than that. But we will end up with a deficit. “This is not the time for us to be creating new positions.” The worst thing this would do is delay the hiring of a communications manager two months. ... I agree with Al about district managers. ... The public was clear: We need to control pensions and benefits. One of the best ways to do that is to control hiring and new positions.
7:19: Castro: Constituents have said, we need to cut spending. ... “We have to draw the line.” ... We need to deal with taxes. “I’m not going to support this position or any new position.” ...
Hausladen: Can we get the job description and functions and goals? Without that, it’s not very clear what this person is doing. Everyone has a different idea.
Morrison: The bottom line is the board passed and agenda to lessen crime and address youth and jobs. The chief is doing something. We’re at two murder so far this year, rather than 13. I’ve had constituents say, “Give the chief whatever he wants.” Sometimes you need to invest. Yes, we need to cut. But we have priorities.
Jackson-Brooks: State and federal budgets are headed for deficit as well.
Perez: I support community-based policing, that’s why I’m going to vote for more money to go to the police department. ... We’re going to be spending a lot of money on the police department.
Hamilton: Let’s go ahead with the 467, to start accomplishing community policing. Then deal with the communications manager. Two months is not going to make a great big difference.
Clyburn: “You cannot use a credit card over and over and over.” ... The neighborhoods need to be fixed up.
7:32: Paolillo: I’ve always supporting community-based policing. ...
Morrison: I feel I have the best sergeant, Sgt. Harrison, in Dixwell. ... This position would support the police. ... We’re all not going to agree.
Perez: City spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton could go back to being the external spokesman for the department as well, like Jessica Mayorga was. Hartman could do the internal communications. ...
Hausladen: Let’s postpone further discussion on this.
The item was moved and seconded without the position. All are unanimously in favor.
7:39: A five-minute break is called. .. Aldermen grab slices of pizza from Abate’s.
7:47: Jackson-Brooks: “Anybody have any Tylenol? Or something stronger? Can we have some order please?” ... “I just want to announce: Jessica’s baby rolled over for the first time.”
Holmes: The 3-month-old, not the 2-year-old.
7:48: And we’re back.
Elicker: It’s time to talk about our amendment?
Perez: We’re not passing anything. We can talk about anything we want.
Elicker: First item is eliminating capital funding for new schools. Three reasons. Many residents testified that city can’t afford to take on more debt. No residents said we should keep the school. Many said we should remove them. Number two, I’m personally concerned about the debt the city is paying this year, over $60 million. It’s time to slow that down. This is one of the most practical things we can do. I’m not convinced it’s right to build these new schools. There might be other options, which is reason three. “You can’t tell me there are no other options.” My elementary school had modular classrooms when there was a spike in population. I remember playing glockenspiel in music class in one. They didn’t cost $42 million.
Holmes (pictured): I also share a concern about the debt load. But I also have some questions about what happens in the absence of this funding. I toured New Haven Academy, a successfull school with significant structural problems. It’s getting in the way of their kids getting ahead. What do you do to make sure those kids get something. The roof is leaking. The IT is very compromised. Is there something we could do without full rebuild?
Perez: We can get a feel for those concerns and have time to come back. Maybe we increase repairs and maintenance. Some schools only have 200 kids. Those discussions should be had. This will force those discussions. Necessity is the mother of invention. Maybe the short-term solution is using a million or two to address those issues you’re talking about.
Elicker: I like the format, too. Discussion tonight, vote later. ... I think that’s a great point. I talked with the COO of the school and asked about not doing a renovate like-new and just doing a roof repair and IT upgrade. He said they hadn’t done that analysis. ... My point is, we should be seeing those numbers and talking about them. ... Also, they’re planning to do the work in June of 2015.
Jackson-Brooks: We should figure out what needs to happen immediately. ... Any comment on the other two schools? ... Hyde, where it is now, is not a good place. They’ve outgrown the space. ... Maybe we just need them come in and further justify.
Hausladen: There’s a sight-lines report from the Board of Ed that show how much we need to be funding maintenance. We’re drastically underfunding what our own consultants are telling us we need to do to maintain our property. ... I don’t see any harm in pushing off for one year, except that state funding might disappear. ... We can’t afford another year of doing the same old thing. We can afford another year of waiting on doing three more schools.
Elicker: “I don’t think we should wait one more year or even suggest we should wait one more year. I think we should say we’re done with school construction.” And then figure out how to make it work.
8:05: Castro: Two things are very clear to me. People came out and said they can’t afford a tax increase. And people testified that schools are unfit. ...
Jackson-Brooks: Can we get to the point please?
Castro, eventually, says she supports the amendment.
Hamilton: We don’t need new schools. Adding three schools and increasing our budget? That’s not the direction we need to go right now. Taxes are astronomical and continue to rise. ... Pay the teachers more money to really teach our children. So they can be successful. Fine-tune the schools you have.
Morrison: I definitely don’t think we need new schools. But, new schools, I think of a knock-down and rebuild. When I think if New Haven Academy, I think of updating. That’s cheaper. I’m asking. ... Are students better with “a brand new Taj Mahal”? ... New Haven Academy is old. It’s really old. ... New? Or updated?
Jackson-Brooks: I will get the information for our next meeting.
Holmes: What would be effect on increasing pre-K spots?
Jackson-Brooks: We’ll find out.
Hausladen reads from a Board of Ed report on the underfunding of maintenance of schools. After $1.5 billion in school construction, “we have temples” but “our temples are going to crumble” if they’re not maintained. The old Lee high school was good enough to be the Yale School of Nursing, with some renovation and maintenance.
Elicker: To Jessica’s comment, I asked the superintendent, are you sure there are no spots available at any other school in the city? And he said no. There has to be spots. We need to ask, “Are you sure there’s no other way to do this?” So that the response is not that pre-K programs will be cut.
Hausladen: There is physical space out there.
Jackson-Brooks: You have to understand the needs of children, too.
8:22: Moving on. Elicker and Hausladen present their second amendment, on statistical revaluation.
Elicker: I’m proposing this because it’s looking more and more likely that our state delegation is not supportive of the mayor’s phase-in proposal. I’m looking for another way to offer relief to those folks. “I’m looking for ways we can act if the state delegation can’t.” ... We have a spike due to a small period of time where values were out of whack. ... We should do a statistical reval in two years, instead of five years, to re-equalize the value of houses. ... I don’t think people are going to move away. ... We want to encourage more people to move to New Haven. I think we can do that with this proposal. It would cost us about $550,000 in two years to do this.
Holmes: This would go into effect in the future?
Elicker: It would go into effect immediately and require the reval in two years. It would be a message to people: Don’t leave.
Holmes: But no implication on this year’s budget.
Elicker: No. ... It would likely be in the next year’s capital budget.
Holmes: ... I think this is a good thing to be entertaining. We don’t have any guarantees about what will happen. ...
Perez: My understanding is that the senate is going to act on the phase-in plan. We’ll know by the 17th whether the house will pass it. ... I don’t know if we can commit to an expenditure two years in the future.
Elicker: Alderwoman Holmes is right that you never know what will happen. ... “I think it’s highly, highly likely that a statistical revaluation would bring values down. ... I think it’s highly likely that this will equalize things.” ... As for spending future money, we passed a living wage ordinance, committing us to spend money. I suspect we can do something like this.
Castro asks about implementing a full phase-in.
Perez: A full phase-in would benefit commercial properties more than residential.
8:39: Jackson-Brooks: I don’t have any faith in the tax valuations that get done. “Who can you trust these days?”
Hausladen: Put that in the record please.
Aldermen discuss real-estate valuation.
[I’m sorry to say I have to end the live-blog here. Gotta go.]