Two schools of thoughts emerged Monday night from the first public hearing of the mayor’s proposed budget: Save new nurses and the librarians positions because they’re well needed. Or be very wary of a city budget that would spend all of the increased funds that the city is expecting from the state, which is about to slash $900 million from its own budget.
City residents got their first crack at weighing in on the proposed $525.3 million general fund budget during a public hearing of the Board of Alders Finance Committee at City Hall.
Mayor Harp’s proposal increases the budget by less than 3.5 percent, or a little over $17.4 million, while keeping the mill rate flat at 41.55 and anticipating almost no net revenue increase from the city’s Grand List.
But much of the budget increase hinges on receiving about $15.6 million in state aid, which has even city budget chief Joe Clerkin a little nervous.
Stephan Kobasa Monday night urged alders to protect proposed increases that would add an additional seven public health nurses specifically for increasing the number of nurses serving schools. He said his wife Anne Somsel, who was the director of public health nursing until her passing in August, pushed for years to increase the number of school nurses.
Kobasa said he testified at the hearing to “be her voice on this issue.”
“The years that Anne held the position [of director of public health nursing], having adequate nursing services for all the schools was one of her primary concerns,” he said. “She saw [having a school-based nurse] as a child’s right and not just a privilege. For her it wasn’t an abstract issue. She spent years in community nursing at the Fair Haven Clinic before she became the city director. She was devoted to that notion. It also was not abstract because she and I have two daughters that were educated in city schools.”
Citizen budget watchdog Gary Doyens of Westville cautioned the alders to go through the budget with a fine-toothed comb and let no sacred cow be above sacrificing. He did put in a plug for more mechanics to help maintain police cars, and knocked the administration for allocating money for new rolling stock but not the people to take care of that stock. The proposed budget allocates $1 million for a master lease program that would benefit multiple city departments’ fleets of vehicles, including the police department’s.
“The fundamental responsibility of the Finance Committee and the Board of Alders is to have a fiscally sound, prudent, practical budget,” Doyens said. “This budget here spends every dime of projected increase — spends every dime of what the city administration thinks the expanded increase from the state will be, which if anybody follows the state budgeting, that’s highly suspect. This state is in deep, deep trouble. And one reason its in deep trouble is because of the programmatic spending that the state has signed up for year after year.”
Doyens didn’t put up too much of a fight over the addition of school based nurses, though he argued against the idea that children should have them by right. Proposed raises for school paraprofessionals were his line in the sand. Mayor Harp argues that paraprofessionals, who are mostly female and African-American, shouldn’t receive “slave wages”; their salaries start at $18,000 a year.
“The mayor wants to push through $2 million, maybe a little less, to increase the pay of paraprofessionals,” he said. “Is there any data that says why we should be doing that outside of the fact that it’s a pet project? Are we having trouble hiring paraprofessionals? Are we having trouble keeping paraprofessionals? is the goal to raise the level of expertise of paraprofessionals, or are we doing it because, according to the press reports, they’re single moms and we want to pay a better wage?
“Well that’s just not how it works, because at some point you’ve got to come down and say, ‘These are our priorities,’ and you’ve gotta fund this stuff,” he added.
The parks department, which is asking for three new employees — an assistant superintendent, a foreperson and a citizen response administrator — also came in for Doyens’ pointed critique.
“Is that going to make my experience at Edgewood Park one scintilla better for having that community liaison?” Doyens asked. “That park is trashed on the weekends. On Monday morning it is a mess. Last year I called the parks department because my daughter’s soccer fields in East Shore are so poorly mowed that they could barely play soccer on them. I was told that that was because we didn’t have enough people to mow the grass. That parking lot there hasn’t been blown and swept in years. The parking lot fence at the front is all broken an out of alignment.
“These little things make a big difference but the parks department wants to hire a foreman and assistant superintendent and somebody to answer the phone when people like me call,” Doyens said. “I don’t get that.”
Fellow budget watchdog Ken Joyner of Newhallville argued Monday night that for the increase in funding all he sees are new positions, but not how they might specifically benefit the neighborhoods of need in infrastructure and improvements.
He also questioned why the budget doesn’t instead offer New Haven resident property owners a tax break. Joyner argued that when the state legislature increased aid to local municipalities, its intent was not for cities and towns to increase their spending above a certain level. Joyner also suggested that the city should ditch its $50 dumping fee.
“The city has violated the spirit and intent of the Connecticut State Legislature by not providing tax relief to its real property owners,” he said. “The alders should reduce the city’s general fund spending by $5.9 million and provide a 1 mill decrease.”
Though they weren’t singled out specifically as a budget item that needed more scrutiny, advocates for the New Haven Free Public Library reminded alders that they could in fact see the results of the increase they supported last year and residents would see further benefit if they support the requested two new librarians and one technical assistant positions. Under the mayor’s budget request last year the library gained four full-time positions.
Priscilla Dannies, president of the NHFPL Foundation, which is the fundraising arm of the library system, said last year’s increase helped a staff that was previously stretched too thin maintain its hours. The addition of three more staff members will allow the system to increase its hours by one more day a week, she said.
“As a resident of New Haven I know you have to make really hard choices about where the money goes and I appreciate that, but I think that this is a very important place for the resources to go,” Dannies said. “An increase this year will allow us to increase the hours of the branches, and when you go into any branch or go in to the main public library you see how many people use the library all the time. These places are really busy and used for tutoring, computer and internet access, for taxes — 1,600 people used the library last year for taxes.”
Dannies said the city’s libraries are centers of reading and literacy not only for the English-speaking, but also for those who speak it as a second language. It is also is a hub for entrepreneurship.
Laura Cahn, a library foundation board member, pointed out that all three new positions have specific roles: a technical assistant at Mitchell Library , a new children’s librarian at Stetson and a librarian for teens who will do outreach at schools and local branches. The additions also will allow for the one day increase in hours of operations for all the branches.
“Having the branches open an additional day is so important to so many members of our community,” Cahn said. “We can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done for us. You’re employing people in New Haven and just making our community so much better.”
A Fine-Toothed Approach
As was expected, alders didn’t make any declarative statements about the budget at this first of numerous deliberations to be held about the city’s budget before it is voted up or down in late May.
But department heads should be ready for scrutiny. Before the the first budget workshop ended Monday night, alders gave Clerkin quite a bit of homework.
Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison asked Clerkin to prepare the police department to justify why it wants a grant writing position to go from contracted to a full time staff role in the department. She asked for a list of grants that the contracted writer has secured in the last year, and an explanation for how making that position full-time will bring in more grant money.
There was some discrepancy at Monday night’s hearing of whether the mayor’s proposed budget adds 28 new positions or 33. While Clerkin is straightening that out in time for the next meeting, Annex Alder Alphonse Paolillo Jr. asked that Clerkin find out not only how many people the city currently employs, but also the total cost for new positions, including in that figure the base salary and any benefits and pension costs.
Hill Alder Latrice James added that she’d like to see not only the number of employees but also their titles and whether those position are full or part-time.
“We see more phone numbers on the justification forms than cost information,” Paolillo added.
Paolillo asked that Clerkin create a breakdown of costs for programs such as the new master lease that include not just how much the city would borrow, but how much it would cost to service the debt that the city would incur. He also asked for the most recent reports from bond rating agencies. East Rock Alder Anna Festa requested an accounting of enterprise funds generated from public resources like the golf course and a comparison analysis of whether the city is competitive with other nearby communities.