The Board of Alders passed a $523.3 million city budget — and immediately started working toward closing a potential $2 million hole in it.
The approval came during a four-hour meeting at City Hall. It capped months of deliberations over the budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.
The final budget incorporates changes the alders had made to the Harp administration’s proposed version with an eye toward fiscal responsibility: It added $1.2 million to the city’s rainy-day fund, bolstered pension and health benefit reserves, eliminated some requested new positions, left vacant a $116,000-a-year policy and grant writing post, while preserving new library and school-nurse positions. (This previous article details the alders’ proposed alterations to the budget, all of which passed easily Monday night.)
Mayor Toni Harp said on WNHH radio’s “Mayor Monday” program that the budget manages to add to city services in tough times without raising taxes. “What I’m most excited about is that the administration and the Board of Alders recognize that we need the nurses in the schools. We’re going to get more help in the libraries,” she said.
The Harp administration also won approval at Monday night’s Board of Alders meeting on its second try for $10.7 million in city bonding to build a $45 million, mostly state-funded new home for the Strong School on the Southern Connecticut State University campus. The 19-8 vote and more than an hour of debate revealed a possible new political divide on the Board of Alders.
For all the debate, New Haven emerged in a relatively secure spot compared to this sessions’ budget crises at the state Capitol, where lawmakers scrambled to fill a $930 million deficit; and compared to the cities of Hartford and Bridgeport, which wrestled with estimated $30-50 million budget deficits by slashing services like libraries and parks, laying off dozens of workers, and demanding millions in union givebacks. New Haven has been balancing its books for years. This new budget avoids a tax increase.
Still, there was plenty to argue and fret about.
Especially when it came to the unexpected drama of the night, an ultimately unanimous condemnation of police brass and efforts to stay in front of a potential fracture in the new budget before it even takes effect: the city’s cost of assuming management of the pre-detention prisoner lock-up at 1 Union Ave.
Message Sent To NHPD
Annex Alder Alphonse Paolillo Jr. sprang a surprise on his colleagues in the form of five unannounced amendments seeking to force police officials to work more openly with the board on that issue.
The city learned in April that, thanks to Connecticut’s budget crisis, the state Judicial Department, which has run the lock-up since 1993, will stop doing so. Almost immediately. The police department will be responsible for it starting July 1. Including paying for it.
That will cost a lot of money.
But how much money? The alders, voting on the final budget, had no idea.
That did not please Al Paolillo.
Paolillo (whose father, a retired alder, watched the fill meeting from the gallery) blasted Police Chief Dean Esserman and the Harp administration for not informing alders about the pending lock-up change during budget hearings; he said the alders found out on their own. And he argued the administration has continued to keep alders in the dark about the evolving plan for running the lock-up, which may add millions of dollars of unanticipated costs to the new budget and potentially throw it out of balance.
“Here we are on June 6 with no tangible public plan, no alternatives, no options,” Paolillo complained. “I wouldn’t call this the best example of community policing.”
“The board,” he said, “is not part of this conversation.” It must be, he argued.
Paolillo noted the alders have repeatedly requested more information about the lock-up plan, to no avail. He threw in the fact that the police chief and assistant chiefs bought themselves new vehicles while the rank-and-file’s fleet is falling apart (as detailed in this article). And that the police department is running an $870,000 deficit in the current fiscal year. (Paolillo had already at a previous meeting succeeded in passing amendments requiring the chief to notify alders of the purchase of any new vehicles and prohibiting from buying any new cars for himself or his assistant chiefs.)
Monday night Paolillo proposed the following amendments to the budget, revealing them on the floor to his colleagues for the first time:
• Requiring the police chief to “provide a detailed plan for operation of detention with staffing and budgetary implications by June 13.”
• Requiring city Building Official Jim Turcio and City Engineer Giovanni Zinn to “review and inspection” the and report to the alders by July 1 on projected costs of improvements needed to run the facility.
• Requiring Esserman to “submit monthly reports on the activities and pending developments” on the lock-up change.
• Requiring “all correspondence addressed to the police/mayor” be forwarded to the alders if it concerns any police matter that affects the budget.
At first, Alders Adam Marchand and Jessica Holmes opposed Paolillo’s amendments. They praised the “intent” of fiscal accountability. But they said they hadn’t had a chance to read the fine print and subject it to scrutiny and debate.
But other alders piled on to Paolillo’s complaints about the police brass disrespecting their body.
Board President Tyisha Walker declared a five-minute recess so staff could photocopy Paolillo’s proposed amendments.
After reading the amendment, alders lined up in support.
“It’s irresponsible and disrespectful when they don’t give us information to make decisions,” complained East Rock Alder Anna Festa.
“They constantly blow us off with information. Our police chief needs to address these issues and stop holding off information,” chimed in Morris Cove’s Sal DeCola. Newhallville’s Delphine Clyburn, Bella Vista’s Barbara Constantinople, and Fair Haven Heights’ Rosa Santana added similar sentiments.
In the end, the board voted unanimously to pass Paolillo’s amendments.
DOC Says No Thanks
After the meeting, Assistant Police Chief Anthony Campbell updated the Independent on the status of the lock-up plans and answered questions raised by the alders.
He said the city plans to spend close to $40,000 a week, or close to $2 million a year, to run the lock up by employing 38-45 officers on overtime weekly duty to man the facility in six-person shifts. He said the understaffed department has to rely on overtime because it has no officers to spare from regular duty.
The department had originally looked at using space at the state pre-trial jail on Whalley Avenue instead of taking over the 1 Union Ave. lock-up. That didn’t work for a number of reasons, Campbell said. Among the reasons: The facility doesn’t house women, so female arrestees would have to be driven to the state jail in Niantic.
Campbell said he and the police chief met last Friday with the state corrections commissioner to see if his department could take over 1 Union Ave. The answer was no: That department has its own $15 million budget cut to deal with. And its standards for prisons (such as installing beds in the cells and giving prisoners uniforms) would require it to spend $5 million a year, not $2 million, to operate the lock-up.
Finally, Campbell said the NHPD has asked the state Judicial Department to give the city a six-month reprieve rather than turn over the facility as planned on July 1. Campbell said he has received no response yet.
In the meantime, he’s working with the police union and other key players to be prepared to assume control of the lock-up on July 1.
“I believe when the time comes, we will” be ready, Campbell said.
During the debate Monday night, Westville Alder Marchand said there may be ways to cover the unanticipated cost without putting the budget in the red, perhaps by using some of the newly socked away rainy-day fund, for instance.
Meanwhile, city Chief Administrative Officer Michael Carter said Paolillo has a good point about the $870,000 police budget deficit. Carter said overtime costs are largely to blame, due to staff shortages. He said the city will need to ramp up a series of police recruit classes to tackle that problem the way it did in the fire department.
While Paolillo succeeded in bringing all his colleagues to his side on the police amendments Monday, he had less luck when it came to the other hotly debated subject of the evening: whether to proceed with the $45 million planned new home for the Strong School on SCSU’s campus.
The alders last year killed the SCSU-Strong plan with Paolillo and Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison leading the charge, supported by the board’s Yale UNITE HERE local union-backed majority. They argued that the city couldn’t afford to borrow even more money to keep building new schools.
The state gave the city one more crack this year at approving the school plan and receiving the approximately $35 million in funding for it. This time the Harp administration succeeded in convincing the two leaders of the board’s labor-backed majority, Morrison and President Walker, to support the plan. They convinced them that it makes more sense to spend that $10.7 million on an innovative new school run in conjunction with SCSU’s education department rather than pouring that money into patching up Strong’s crumbling existing home on Legion Avenue.
Paolillo argued that just as last year, the city can’t afford to borrow more money for new schools — even more so than last year. The $1 million in annual debt payments will force painful other cuts or jeopardize the city’s fiscal stability, he argued. And the state’s own budget crisis puts its future support for maintaining the building in doubt. Paolillo further noted that the Board of Education has consistently come back to the alders to approve millions of dollars in cost overruns for school projects.
By Monday night’s meeting, it was clear the Strong plan had the votes to pass anyway. The UNITE HERE-backed majority was, to a person, solidly behind it. (This previous article details the reasons offered on both sides.)
But during more than an hour of procedural challenges and amendments and debate — rare open disagreement for this iteration of the Board of Alders — a potential longer-range fissure emerged. No longer was it just a handful of labor-skeptical dissenters opposing the majority. Paolillo has previously been a staunch member of the UNITE HERE-backed majority. Out of 27 alders present (absent were West Rock’s Carlton Staggers, Downtown’s Alberta Witherspoon, and Wooster Square’s Aaron Greenberg), eight voted against the Strong proposal: the Hill’s Dave Reyes Jr., East Rock’s Festa, Bishop Woods’ Gerald Antunes, Fair Haven’s Ernie Santiago, Paolillo, DeCola, and Upper Westville’s Darryl Brackeen.
“I am opposed to the building of Strong School. But I am not opposed to the kids,” Festa said.
Beaver Hills Alder Richard Furlow, whose ward includes 73 Strong students (a point school officials made sure to tell him), said he struggled with his vote before deciding to support the school project. In the end he “pleaded” with his colleagues to vote yes.
“We must continue to build a strong structure for our children,” he said.