For Wonkish Rookies, City Hall Wasn’t Hollywood
by Paul Bass | Dec 26, 2013 7:23 am
First of two parts.
In the Hollywood version, idealistic new faces appear in City Hall and declare: Let’s save $2 million on health care! Let’s have neighbors speak up to improve a good idea for building up their neighborhood! Everyone cheers. A new day dawns.
In the real-life New Haven version, idealistic new lawmakers made those declarations. They then spent months in long meetings and negotiations. In the end, they didn’t convince everyone. They didn’t get all they wanted. They did get some of it.
And they’re ready to seek more of it when Act II begins next week.
The new lawmakers starred in a political drama these past two years that could have been entitled: What Happens When Labor Wins Control of City Government.
Candidates backed by the city’s most powerful unions, Yale’s UNITE/HERE Locals 34 and 35, swept a majority of seats on the Board of Aldermen in 2011. They spent the past two years in their first term testing out how a labor-backed legislature can govern a modern American city, an experiment being watched nationally. The coalition has won a majority again in this fall’s elections; it begins a second term wiser about what it takes to move government policy.
Simply by winning two years ago, the coalition vaulted its three main priorities to the top of the city’s governing agenda. It led the mayor to hire a new chief to bring back community policing, which the chief has been doing. It formed a working group with corporate and City Hall leaders to create a new agency—New Haven Works—to help unemployed and underemployed New Haveners find jobs in the new ed-and-meds local economy; that agency opened its doors in June. It put together a plan to bring back youth centers to city neighborhoods, especially Dixwell’s shuttered Community “Q” House. In term two, the coalition will be judged in large part by whether community policing continues to take root and cut crime and reconnect cops with neighbors; whether New Haven Works can find lots of people jobs; whether New Haven finds the money to build and run those youth centers.
Meanwhile, individual labor-backed first-term aldermen pursued less-visible initiatives that tested their ability to translate outside idealism into insider governance.
East Rock’s Jessica Holmes, for instance, rounded up neighbors to try to improve a plan to convert an empty old factory into needed new housing. Their activism ended up killing the proposal altogether, for a while, rather than improving it.
Holmes and Westville’s Adam Marchand, two labor movement veterans with policy-wonk streaks, thought they had an idea people on all sides could love: spending less on city government health insurance without sacrificing (perhaps by even improving) the care workers receive. The details of how to get there proved trickier than the pair realized at first. And labor leaders ended up helping to kill a big part of the idea.
In both cases, the pair did emerge with some victories to claim. They also received an education in governing, they said during a year-end chat at the Woodland Coffee & Tea shop on Orange Street.
“Progress is slow,” Holmes reflected. “I want change to happen yesterday. I want things to be better yesterday. I want plows to move faster. I want schools to be better. I want crime to go away completely. That’s not the way it works.”
“It [takes] a lot more than you think to move issues,” Marchand agreed. “You really have to persist and bring people together, There’s this Hollywood vision: You make a few speeches. People gather around you and say, ‘Let’s pass gun control.’ It doesn’t happen like that. Progress happens step after step after step. And the work continues.”
Labor Vs. Labor
It was hard to see who would object to the goal Holmes and Marchand set early in the term: To start putting out to bid the contract for managing the city’s health insurance, in the hopes of saving $2 million a year and improving coverage along the way. The city hadn’t put the contract out for serious new bids in years.
The pair had both studied the issue extensively in their professional lives. Marchand crunches claims data as a leader of a Yale union-management team that deals with health benefits. Before coming to New Haven, Holmes worked for a HERE health care fund for Atlantic City hotel and casino workers.
Soon after taking office, Holmes and Marchand helped create a task force to look at reining in health spending. That task force in turn recommended that the city start bidding out the contract for its health insurance carrier. (While the city is self-insured, it contracts with a health insurance carrier to administer the coverage, including negotiating prices with doctors.)
Holmes and Marchand asked city officials to include municipal union leaders in a committee reviewing bids for the health care management contract. Officials called the idea too “unwieldy” and also were concerned about conflicts with terms of contracts they were simultaneously negotiating with the same unions, according to Holmes and Marchand. (“That’s a little simplified, but it’s reasonably accurate,” said city Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts.)
The city did allow Homes and Marchand themselves to sit on the eight-person committee. They said OK.
“I thought, ‘Let’s move forward. This is an improvement,’” Marchand recalled. “I had misgivings [about leaving out union leaders]. And it showed.”
The committee asked bidders to provide not just a price, but details on how they’d help improve the care employees receive—for instance, how to encourage more primary and preventive care, how to reward doctors for the quality of care rather than for how much medicine or how many procedures they prescribe.
About a half dozen companies bid on parts or all of the contract. The committee chose two finalists: Anthem, which currently has the contract; and Cigna.
Both bids came in lower than the existing contract. That was progress. Both bidders described efforts they’re making in other states to promote preventive care and rein in costs, and committed to launch similar efforts in New Haven. That was progress, too.
The committee chose Cigna. It had the lower bid.
That seemed like progress. Until leaders of two of the city’s municipal unions rebelled: the firefighters union and the management union. They lashed out at the change as a violation of their contracts.
In the public debate over the new Board of Aldermen majority, the broad brush of “labor” backing confuses a more nuanced reality: private-sector Yale unions played the biggest role in electing that majority. Not municipal unions, although they played a role in the coalition. That was underscored by the rebellion against the proposed move to Cigna.
Marchand and Holmes said the union leaders had a good point. Since the 1990s, New Haven hasn’t required its insurance management contract to include “SPDs” (summary plan descriptions) spelling out what a plan covers and when. Without SPDs, the union leaders didn’t trust that Cigna would cover as much as Anthem did before. The firefighters union’s contract also had language that required any new carrier to offer coverage that is “identical in every respect” to existing coverage—an “impossible threshold to meet,” Smuts said.
As a result, the city ended up with Anthem for another year. No $2 million savings.
Still, the city did save as much as $500,000 from the year before, according to Rob Smuts. In the meantime, the city has won language in new union contracts that will make it harder for union leaders to block a switch to a new carrier in future contracts. The city has also produced SPDs for its health-care plans.
That’s a start. Holmes and Marchand hope to do better next year. Last week Marchand and city officials met with Yale medical researchers to plan a study to identify what’s driving up city health care costs. And the aldermen hope to win municipal union leaders seats on the committee reviewing bids. That call will be up to the new mayor, Toni Harp—someone Holmes and the labor coalition recruited to run and worked to elect.
Two Bites At The “Star” Apple
During this year’s mayoral campaign, Harp distanced herself from one of Holmes’ most visible efforts during her first term: organizing neighbors to change a plan to convert the empty old Star Supply factory on 3.22 acres along Upper State Street to 268 apartments, along with retail. Holmes led a crowd of neighbors and other activists to oppose key elements of the plan at the zoning board, which needed to approve the plan. The neighbors didn’t like the height of some of the buildings. And they wanted more parking spaces at the complex so new tenants wouldn’t take cherished street parking spaces. The zoning board saw the crowd in opposition, and in April killed the plan.
In a campaign interview, Harp criticized that decision: She said she’d spoken to many neighbors who liked the plan, who saw the need for more housing (as well as tax revenue) in New Haven. (She also criticized City Hall for not getting more of those neighbors involved.)
Holmes said in the year-end interview that she had all along intended to support the concept of the plan. As part of her coalition’s commitment to more democratic government, she also wanted neighbors’ ideas to influence and improve it. She brought those neighbors together with the developer, Ben Gross, to discuss their concerns.
“I did want that site developed. The neighbors wanted that site developed,” she said. “Bringing neighbors into the process is the right thing. I hadn’t predicted what would happen.”
In retrospect, she said, she should have organized the meetings with the developers before the plan was submitted to the zoning board. That way the developer could have more easily made changes before zoners made an up-or-down decision.
Holmes and the neighborhood got a second chance. Gross returned with a new partner and a new plan this fall. Holmes and the neighbors met with them before they submitted plans to the zoning board. The developers made the project slightly smaller than before. None of the new complex’s buildings would rise seven stories this time, just five. It would have 235 apartments, not 268. The highest buildings would no longer overshadow private yards in the neighborhood. And the complex would have plenty more parking, 273 spaces, more than required by zoning. (It would also have 235 bike-parking spaces.)
Holmes and neighbors showed up at a Dec. 10 zoning board hearing to bless the plan this time, along with local preservationists. It appears destined to easy approval.
The plan still isn’t perfect, in Holmes’ view. “At the end of the day I would like New Haven to have fewer cars and better transit,” she said. But she concluded that city mass transit hasn’t gotten to the point where it new Haven have comfortably supported the 0.6 parking spaces envisioned in the original Star Supply plan. She said she wishes the new plan didn’t go to the other extreme, with around 1.2 spaces per apartment. But overall the new plan is a good one, with a much improved scale and design, she said. It took a while to get there. Along the way, she came under harsh criticism from local business people, not to mention some (not all) Independent reader-commenters. “Holmes and her colleagues have just done their darndest to convince [a builder] that New Haven’s an impossible place to do business,” wrote one sample critic.
It was a learning experience for Holmes—and not just about the politics of community development.
“One of the things I’ve gotten out of the last year is a thicker skin,” she said. “I’m [always] going to listen to feedback; I can’t be devastated by a comment in the Independent. I’m an alderman because I want to make the city a better place.”
Previous stories examining the new labor majority’s first term in office:
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Holmes and Westville’s Adam Marchand, two labor movement veterans with policy-wonk streaks, thought they had an idea people on all sides could love: spending less on city government health insurance without sacrificing (perhaps by even improving) the care workers receive. The details of how to get there proved trickier than the pair realized at first. And labor leaders ended up helping to kill a big part of the idea
Labor Movement Veterans? Give me a break.If they were Labor Movement Veterans how come both of them voted to take away medical retirement benfits from Park workers.They are both part of the Tammany Hall Democratic political machine which is sell out the people and labor.
This is a great article. Thank you for providing New Haven with excellent journalism.
I think Jessica did a pretty good job, considering the hand we were dealt. The developers never really consulted with us. They ran the plan by us hoping for buy-in, but they seemed to be more focused on making their money calculations work than considering how the project would fit into the neighborhood and the site—like plopping a 7-story apartment building onto the very edge of a well-used city park and right on the property line of the neighbors’ gardens.
The project was also indifferent to our need for neighborhood stability. Ever since Yale stopped red-lining Goatville, more and more of the housing has been bought by absentee landlords renting to short-term tenants. The Star Supply plans made no provision for families (mostly studio and 1-bedroom apartments) and essentially turned its back on the abutting streets. It was kind of an alien blob, focused on itself and seemingly ignorant of the not-yet-revived, part residential, part industrial, part interstate highway section of upper State Street it hoped to occupy. I found it hard to believe the project would survive, as it depended on young folks with the money for a $1500/month studio who didn’t mind living across the street from an auto repair shop and a hundred yards from I-91.
I’m delighted that the new design addresses these flaws and that the project will be guided by someone who has experience in re-purposing old industrial buildings, as opposed to the first architect who boasted of his 50-floor apartment tower in Brooklyn.
Contrary to the implication in the article that organizing neighbors to weigh in on this project is manipulative demagoguery, I think that, to her credit, Jessica did exactly what she was elected to do: she kept us informed and engaged in the process. It’s clear that the developer did not take this as a signal to go away; he went back to the drawing board, re-thought the project and came up with something better. That’s the way things are supposed to work.
These Alders represent the forces of gentrification and exclusion. Instead of advocating for a few affordable housing units, they pushed for more parking spaces.
For the cost of providing the extra asphalt here, the developer could easily have incorporated family housing instead. The extra spaces are likely to sit empty.
Homelessness is on the rise because our elected leaders consistently choose parking spaces, parking garages, and other benefits for the elite over the needs of working families.
Thanks for the big picture story NHI. I think most people know that real change takes time…and its good to see the alders are clear eyed about that. The healthcare system is a national disaster! Any effort to pay more attention to how the City can use its purchasing power to achieve better results is worthwhile. There can be a win-win here for the City and the union workers…it’s the health insurance industry that is making the big profits. I hope Harp includes city union workers in the next round of work on this issue.
Great big picture article! Really appreciate the perspective and overview, and looking forward to the next one. There are challenges to be sure, and the situation with Star Supply was a tough one to thread for the reasons Jessica mentioned. I hope the healthcare work continues next year with more success. And I’m impressed, as always, by the work some of our aldermen and city officials and other leaders in New Haven do to untangle the bureaucracy and contracts and zoning and details and make something of it.
Anonymous, I am continually struck by your vitriol about this. I get that your perspective is that this board and our future mayor are Destroying New Haven. We all get it. I understand that you have a lot of knowledge and experience and that you care a lot and I don’t at all hate the content you’re delivering. Bicycles and public transit and affordable housing, yes! But I don’t understand the constant vitriol toward people who are working extremely long hours to do extremely difficult and thankless work. If you want to snipe at them, get a meeting with Jessica or Adam! Maybe you do, I don’t know.
Anyway, personal commentary over. I guess at this point I’m basically that guy wishing that we could all just get along. Carry on, carry on.
Thanks for the recap article!
“Holmes and the neighborhood got a second chance.”
C’mon, Paul, while I’m sure it was not intentional, this is a silly sentence. No, residents of New Haven were not benevolently granted a second chance to prove ourselves to the almighty Developers. No, it was not generosity that drove Ben Gross & co. to submit a new plan for the Star Supply building development. New Haven residents should not be bamboozled into believing that developers have the best interests of the city in mind or that the free market will alleviate the structural problems plaguing the city.
I’m certainly not saying developers are “bad,” but we should understand that their projects are driven by the goal of making money, not solving problems of inequality and blight in New Haven. In order to address those issues, New Haven residents should absolutely make their voices heard about what they would like to see in development projects, especially when developers try to use variances to make backroom deals with no process of public scrutiny. Ben Gross & Co. got a second chance, and they came with a plan that was significantly more appealing to residents than the first one. I say kudos to all residents, including Alder Holmes, for making sure residents have some agency in what happens in their communities, and are not just dictated to by the interests of private capital and development.
K Harrison, New Haven would be a much better place if we held our elected officials accountable for their actions more often, whether through elections, or meetings, the investigative journalism here, or other forms of media including blogs and social media postings. You are free to ignore the meetings or other media, or consider them, if you agree - but without the public dialogue, there is no accountability.
I’m happy that your friends are doing difficult work, but it’s far from “thankless” work. The people doing “thankless” work are the ones who are working two low-wage jobs, but then are not able to afford to live here, and whose safety is jeopardized, because of the decisions that these leaders are making.
anonymous, I also don’t understand your criticism of Holmes and Marchand.
re: Star Supply, my understanding (though it may not have been highlighted in the NHI’s reporting) is that the development did actually include significantly more 2- and 3-BR units (i.e. family housing) than the previous design. (If I’m wrong, others should correct me)
Could there be more family and affordable housing in the design? Of course, but we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
In general, it appears Holmes made significant headway in showing developers like Gross that want to come and develop new housing that the community wants to have a say and wants projects that simultaneously improve and integrate into existing neighborhoods.
(I also share the sentiments of nashstreeter & steveonanderson.)
On controlling healthcare costs: while the war is not yet won, the battle is far from over, and Holmes & Marchand are to be applauded. The work they did with the task force revealed many troubling trends in the prior administration’s approach to healthcare bargaining, including that there were 90+ configurations of health plans that the City manages right now. (a fact not mentioned in this article)
That revelation alone creates an opening for a more rational conversation about health costs that has now begun. The Anthem v Cigna cost issue is only the tip of the iceberg. I am hopeful that, with a new administration in place and a BoA more educated and versed in the issues facing the City, we’ll be able to avoid going down the road that of slashing workers’ benefits that has characterized this debate in the rest of the country.