I didn’t sign up for Democracy School because I wanted to run for mayor. In fact, I don’t want to run for any elected office.
I’m a reporter for the New Haven Independent, and when I first learned about the city’s annual two-month crash course on the ins and outs of New Haven municipal government, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to become a better New Haven journalist.
My primary responsibility as a local reporter is to write with knowledge and clarity about day-to-day happenings in this city. But you can’t do that well without understanding the long-term factors that shape and influence any given night’s assignment.
I was looking for, in a word, context.
I graduated from Democracy School Tuesday night, and I can say with confidence that context is just what I found, along with a certain pride that I live in a city where the local government is so committed to civic education.
Other people committed to New Haven from all walks of life filled out the rest of this year’s Democracy School student body, and came along for the ride to learn similar lessons about this city.
For the past two months, I and my two dozen fellow Democracy School classmates have spent each Thursday evening from 6 to 8 p.m. traveling throughout the city, from City Hall to the police headquarters at 1 Union Ave., from the New Haven Opportunity Center on Dixwell Avenue to the main branch of the public library on Elm Street, learning about the roles and responsibilities of each city department.
The best classes featured substantive, critical conversations between my classmates and department heads about the challenges that New Haveners face on a daily basis, and about how any given department is working to solve those problems.
The worst played out more like lectures than discussions, with department heads talking at rather than with the group for the majority of their time before us.
But with each session, no matter the topic, no matter the speaker, Democracy School helped inform me that much more about the city I live in, love, and try to write about each week.
In that spirit, here are my top four takeaways from my time in Democracy School. Some of these may be familiar to the Independent’s readers; some may be more obscure. Hopefully each will shed a little light on the New Haven we all live in.
I may not go on to run for mayor the way previous Democracy School graduates Justin Elicker, Jeffrey Kerekes and Marcus Paca did. But hey, at least I learned something.
Democracy School Takeaway #1: Some of New Haven’s most valuable property is tax-exempt, and the state program designed to compensate the city for lost property tax revenue is woefully underfunded.
One of the first sessions of Democracy School was Finance & Budget. The city’s budget director, controller, assessor and tax collector took their turns at the front of the Aldermanic Chambers to speak with the group about the city’s annual budget, which is around $540 million.
Much of the city’s budget is funded through property taxes (around $250 million), which come from a “grand list” of around 27,000 properties.
But as we all know, our city does not just consist of offices and restaurants and homes and other taxable real estate. We also have a great density of colleges, hospitals, churches, museums, and other tax-exempt properties owned by not-for-profits.
There are around 2,000 tax-exempt properties in this city, and they are some of the most valuable real estate in town. In fact, these 2,000 properties are worth a little bit more than the assessed value of the 25,000 other tax-eligible properties combined.
To help compensate the city for having so much valuable, tax-exempt real estate, the state runs two Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) programs, one for hospitals and colleges and one for state-owned properties. By law, PILOT is supposed to refund New Haven (and other Connecticut cities) 77 cents on every dollar of lost property tax revenue.
But the PILOT law says that the state must pay out these reimbursements only within “available appropriations.” For many years, those “available appropriations” have not been too available.
PILOT is currently paying out at closer to 41 cents on the dollar, and, considering the state’s financial woes, we may not be seeing too much higher of a reimbursement rate any time soon…
Democracy School Takeaway #2: Each city department is awash in data. The challenge that each department faces is to understand, interpret, and then use this data to find solutions to the city’s problems.
Democracy School is a little like a snapshot of New Haven by the numbers. There is a lot of information presented to the class over the course of the two months, and part of the challenge is figuring out which data are simply interesting and which help tell a broader story about this city.
Here are a few numbers that jumped out at me over the course of Democracy School.
There were 34 homicides in New Haven in 2011. There have been seven thus far in 2017.
The police department currently has 430 officers on staff, out of a budgeted capacity for 494 officers. Only 15 percent of the department’s current staff live in New Haven.
78 percent of fire department calls are medical.
The city has 133 parks, which make up 20 percent of the city’s land mass.
The city has one of the highest rates of asthma in the country.
There are 3,800 automobile collisions each year in New Haven.
The city’s official homeless population is 543. There are 431 nightly beds available in city homeless shelters, and only 51 of those beds are dedicated to women.
Each month, 100 people return from prison to New Haven.
I’m not completely sure what to do with each of these bits of information, but the numbers that stuck out to me always came with a story.
For example, Police Chief Anthony Campbell spoke about how his department’s low percentage of local officers reflects a persistent challenge in recruiting officers from minority communities, as well as the reluctance that many officers have to patrol, and make arrests in, the same community in which they live.
Democracy School Takeaway #3: The city is experimenting more and more with programs that reach across departments, and bring together different people with different areas of expertise, all working together towards addressing the same problem.
In response to the city’s disproportionately high asthma rates, particularly among children, the public health department and the parks department now run a summer asthma camp. Kids with asthma learn about how to use inhalers in maintenance and emergency situations, and build colorful inhaler-shaped structures out of Legos.
Youth Services director Jason Bartlett works with his staff, the Board of Education, mental health professionals, social workers, housing experts, and dozens of other community partners to run YouthStat, a data-intensive, student-intervention program focused on supporting city youth struggling with absenteeism, truancy and poor academic performance.
The city’s police department recently launched the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, a pre-arrest diversion program focused on providing low-level drug offenders with case workers, housing, and rehabilitative social services instead of incarceration and a longer criminal record.
These are just a few of the interdepartmental collaborations that came up over the course of Democracy School. The city seems to be leaning in to this kind of pooling of resources with the hope that answers to the city’s problems may lie somewhere in between multiple departments’ areas of expertise.
Democracy School Takeaway #4: Democracy School is not just an opportunity to meet and learn from city department heads. It’s also an opportunity to spend time with a diverse, passionate group of fellow New Haveners who are all committed to making the city a better place.
Democracy School is certainly worthwhile as a crash course on how the city runs, who is in charge of which decisions, and how those officials can best be held accountable by an informed and engaged public.
But it’s also tremendously worthwhile as an opportunity to meet a diverse cross section of New Haveners who all feel committed to learning about the city, and then going out and making it that much better of a place to live and work.
My Democracy School classmates included the chair and secretary of the Newhallville community management team, an employee of the state’s Department of Social Services, a retired teacher from Hillhouse and a current teacher at Metropolitan Business Academy, an incoming alder from the Hill, a write-in candidate for alder in Newhallville, Yale graduate and undergraduate students, staffers at SeeClickFix and New Haven Farms, a public school nurse, and many more people besides, from all different wakes of life in this city.
Thank you to my classmates, Democracy School teacher and Special Assistant to the Mayor Michael Harris, and the various city officials who volunteered their time these past few Thursday nights to help a group of us better understand the city.
I now have a lot more information about this city to chew over, both as a reporter and as a citizen, and I look forward to sharing the benefits of that with you readers in my future articles for the Independent.
These are just a few scattered thoughts from one Democracy School student. Check out https://www.newhavenct.gov/gov/democracy_school.htm to learn more about future instances of Democracy School. To my my fellow Democracy School classmates and alumns of this program, what were your key takeaways and impressions of this program? Please share in the comment thread below.