The ghosts of budget deliberations past—hours-long wrangling over surprise last-minute maneuvers, split votes, angry taxpayers massing with anti-government placards—vanished from City Hall as lawmakers unanimously approved close to $500 million in new spending in less than half the time of a “Saturday Night Live” episode.
This time, on Tuesday night, the vote was 25-0 in an expeditious special meeting of the Board of Aldermen. And a new $486.4 million city budget became law.
The meeting came at the end of months of hearings, where some opposition was heard. But those meetings were sedate, placid affairs compared to the Finance Committee hearings of years past that featured tears and acrimony. And the final vote, when it came Tuesday night, was without any 11th-hour wrangling on the floor.
What made this year so quiet? It may have been the fact that, as the mayor has pointed out, next year’s $486 million budget will mean a decrease in property taxes for most city residents because of a citywide property revaluation. The tax rate will drop from 43.9 to 38.88 mills.
Or it might be because there’s less ideological daylight between the current aldermen compared to previous cohort, and between the aldermen and the DeStefano administration. A new pro-labor supermajority has taken over the board. And so far it is getting along famously with the mayor’s office. Negotiations still take place on points of disagreement, but at least so far a reigning consensus and partnership seems to have taken hold. Tuesday night’s votes tended to be unanimous.
Another theory: The board no longer has a contrarian firebrand to mount Quixotic charges against the status quo and take up the mantle of budget watchdogs eager for cuts, as it did in former West Rock Alderman Darnell Goldson.
Or maybe the aldermanic Finance Committee simply did a good and thorough job at its own meetings and ended up with a firm and fair budget that most people like and could approve at the end of the process.
Whatever the reason, the result was that Tuesday’s budget vote was a largely pro forma affair, lasting only 40 minutes from start to finish.
The board voted to approve the budget as modified by the Finance Committee, which trimmed down the mayor’s originally proposed $486.8 million general fund budget to a $486.4 million. The committee cut the capital budget more significantly, reducing proposed borrowing by $17.1 million. That means borrowing less money to build or renovate schools.
Aldermen Justin Elicker and Doug Hausladen had tried to trim the budget further, but weren’t able to find traction among their colleagues.
On Tuesday night, Elicker contributed to one of the few moments of discussion by standing to say that he still thinks his amendments were a good idea and would offer them again, but knew he doesn’t have the votes to pass them.
After the meeting, board President Jorge Perez said this year was different from last partly because no aldermen advanced large last-minute proposals like a 10 percent across-the-board cut to the budget. Then- Aldermen Goldson did that two years ago.
Perez also said this year may be different because three quarters of New Haven homeowners are going to see a property tax reduction. The board heard from members of the 25 percent who won’t, he noted.
But even those unfortunate taxpayers didn’t bother to show up Tuesday night to watch the vote. City Hall legislative liaison Matt Smith said the Aldermanic Chamber was the emptiest he’s seen it in years on a budget night, a fact that he attributed to the tax reductions for most homeowners.
Perez, who has a much longer institutional memory (back to the 1988, when he began serving as alderman), said he’s seen it that empty before. There have been years with 20-minute budget votes, he said.
Hill Alderwoman Andrea Jackson-Brooks said she didn’t even notice how empty the chamber was. She said that if people are unhappy with the budget, they have to show up and make their voices heard.
She said the Finance Committee made what cuts it could to the mayor’s proposed budget, without sacrificing city services.
The new budget takes effect when the new fiscal year starts, on July 1.
6:47 p.m.: Aldermen are milling about here. I’m told that no one is planning to offer any amendments. But one never knows what surprises the evening may hold. [Spoiler alert: The evening held no surprises.]
6:52: Matt Smith, former alderman and current legislative liaison to the board, said this is the emptiest he’s seen the aldermanic chamber in years on a budget vote night. There are approximately two members of the public in the audience, not counting press and city officials. The reason? Smith says it’s because 73 percent of homeowners will see a property tax decrease under the new budget.
7:01: President Jorge Perez is calling the meeting to order. The city clerk is not here. Perez says he doesn’t know why. He appoints Alderman Doug Hausladen to be the clerk for the night. Hausladen calls the roll. Aldermen Gabriel Santiago and Ernie Santiago are absent, as is Alderwoman Brenda Foskey Cyrus, Aldermen Brian Wingate, and Alderwoman Sarah Eidelson.
7:03: Perez says several of those contacted him and told him they couldn’t make it for various reasons.
Alderwoman Angela Russel offers divide guidance, quoting Nelson Mandela on “our deepest fear.”
Majority Leader Al Paolillo begins moving through the agenda. He moves item 1A, appropriating ordinance #1, the budget’s main spending plan.
7:06: Finance Committee Chair Andrea Jackson Brooks says: The committee has held four public hearings. We consulted with colleagues neighbors and department heads. We have “crunched numbers and made proposals.” Some worked out. Others didn’t. [She thanks the committee members individually.] These individuals put in countless hours. ... [She thanks city departments.] The committee is indebted to budget director Joe Clerkin and legislative services’ Don Hayden. I thank them for their tireless work. [She thanks the public who came out to testify.] ... We hold a great responsibility. ... There is a delicate balance between not overburdening taxpayers and meeting our fiscal needs. ... We’ll begin with Appropriating Ordinance #1—maintenance for our streets, schooling for children, books for libraries etc… The Finance Committee recommends changes. [She outlines the changes laid out in the last meeting of the Finance Committee—elimination of some positions] ... Reducing the budget $389,000.
7:13: Roll call vote. It’s unanimous: Yes. 25-0.
7:14: Paolillo moves item 1B: revenues.
Jackson-Brooks reads some policy amendments made at the last Finance Committee meeting, including one requiring the Board of Ed to study high school needs and capacity.
She goes on: The tax levy and appropriating ordinance covers revenue including taxes, fees, and money from the state. The mill rate will go down to 38.88. The state did not pass the proposed phase-in on property taxes. The grand list has increased by $304 million.
Roll call vote. And… It’s unanimous: Yes. 25-0.
7:19: Paolillo moves item 1C: Bonding.
Jackson-Brooks: This is the annual capital budget.
Roll call vote. And… What’s it going to be? ... It’s unanimous! Yes. 25-0. The capital budget passes.
7:21: Paolillo moves Item 1D.
Jackson-Brooks: This is the new school construction budget. The Finance Committee removed the proposed new construction of a Hyde High School.
Alderwoman Claudette Robinson Thorpe: Bowen field is in dire need of new bleachers, lighting, and a scoreboard. I decided against trying to amend the budget tonight, to avoid dividing the board. But I’m going to look for state funding for this and I encourage my colleagues to help me.
Alderman Justin Elicker: I always thinks it’s important to explain things. Normally I would propose an amendment but I know it would lose. I stand by the amendments I made earlier. We need to get our head around the debt we owe. We will pay $65 million this year in debt service. I hope people will be more willing to make tough decisions next year. We need to stop taking on additional debt.
Alderman Jessica Holmes: I wanted to say something about the study requested to look at how we’re spending money on schools. I agree that our current obligations for debt service are incredibly high. We also need to serve our kids. ... I’m looking forward to seeing the study that will come out.
Roll call vote. A unanimous vote! The board is on a roll. Item 1D passes 25-0.
7:28: Paolollo moves Item 1E, another bonding item.
Jackson-Brooks: This is to pay for the large settlements the city has incurred, specifically the result of the Ricci case.
Roll call vote. ... And ... it’s ... wait for it ... unanimous! The item passes 25-0.
7:30: Paolillo moves Item F through I—Golf course, skating rink, East Rock park, Lighthouse park. All pass in a unanimous voice vote. Paolillo moves on to the special service districts….
Jackson-Brooks: The Finance Committee heard from the districts. I urge you to approve.
All pass unanimously in a voice vote.
Paolillo moves Item 6, regarding parking fees at Lighhouse Park.
Jackson-Brooks speaks about them. There will be no fees for city residents.
Alderwoman Jeanette Morrison says: I want to thank everyone for hearing this. This is really important to city residents. The Lighthouse Park is a jewel. Fees are burdensome. I was trying to lower costs or eliminate them. We were able to make it a zero cost.
Alderwoman Jackie James: I’d like to talk about residential parking passes. We want people to be able to have people visit them. I’m glad we cleared up the parking passes.
Roll call vote: A unanimous yes. 25-0.
7:39: Paolillo: I move item #7. Leave to withdraw on the five-year phase in plan for owner occupied residential property.
Jackson-Brooks: This item was not approved by the state legislature.
A unanimous voice vote gives it leave to withdraw.
7:40: Perez leads a brief round of applause. Meeting adjourned.