When the New Haven Green was hit by over 100 K2-related overdoses, downtown’s “ambassadors” — whose mission is to help keep the center of town clean and safe — could only stand by across the street.
That’s because the ambassadors, two dozen yellow-and-blue-uniformed workers employed by the Town Green Special Services District with the goal of cleaning and patrolling nine square miles around the Green, are not allowed on the Green itself.
The overdoses prompted renewed calls for the privately hired force to work on the Green itself. It turns out that disputes over money and labor rules have stopped that from happening.
“We get to know people,” said Terrence McIntosh, who has run the District’s ambassadors program since 2015. “We get to know their names, where they’re from.”
During last week’s crisis on the Green, he said, “all we could do was just sit and watch.”
As the city, downtown neighbors, and the obscure private owners of the Green all try to figure how best to respond to the concentration of homelessness and substance abuse on the Green in the wake of last week’s overdoses, some are saying the Town Green District’s ambassadors should provide an additional uniformed presence at the neighborhood’s center.
While the ambassadors are by no means a replacement for law enforcement or emergency medical responders on the Green, Town Green District Deputy Director Matthew Griswold said, their mere uniformed presence and close working relationship with the police may help calm the city center.
“We want the Green to be clean and safe like the rest of downtown,” he said.
He said the ambassadors already help deter illegal behavior from the sidewalks and small parks that they patrol elsewhere downtown, and that they are able to quickly call in emergency responders in the case of a medical or criminal incident.
Furthermore, Griswold and McIntosh said, this year the Town Green District is planning on providing ambassadors with formal training, courtesy of the Apt Foundation, on how to better recognize and respond when someone is suffering from an opioid-related overdose.
In interviews with Town Green District staff, local police, city employees, and the little-known private owners of the Green, the Independent found that no one is necessarily against having ambassadors on the Green.
What’s standing in the way is money. And inertia. And the particularly convoluted web of relationships around exactly who is allowed to do what on the privately-owned, publicly-maintained park at the center of downtown.
Who Are The Ambassadors, Anyway?
Created in 1996, the Town Green Special Services District is a private organization that serves downtown’s businesses and property owners by cleaning city sidewalks and emptying trash cans, providing outdoor tables and seating in public places, and maintaining over 280 flower baskets throughout downtown.
The Town Green District derives almost all of its annual revenue from a tax that the city levies on downtown property owners on behalf of the private organization.
This fiscal year’s Town Green District levy is 1.99 mills. (One mill represents one dollar in taxes for every $1,000 in assessed property value.) According to the Town Green District’s 2017-2018 annual report, the district raised over $1.3 million of its over $1.6 million budget from the municipal tax levy.
Last fiscal year, the Town Green District also received $140,000 from the city and $50,000 from Yale University. The city’s contribution to the Town Green District is slated to increase to $200,000 for the fiscal year that began in July, according to the budget passed by the Board of Alders in June.
The Town Green District contracts with an organization called Streetplus to employ between 22 and 25 full-time ambassadors.
Some are assigned to cleaning the areas they patrol by power washing sidewalks and emptying trash cans. Some serve as park rangers for the two small public parks downtown, Pitkin Plaza and Temple Plaza; and some serve as “safety” ambassadors, charged with walking throughout the neighborhood, greeting passerby, and calling the police when they see illegal activity.
The ambassadors work three seven-person shifts from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day of the year.
They patrol the nine square miles downtown that fall within the Town Green District’s purview. Their domain forms a reverse-L shape around the eastern half of the green, stretching from Audubon Street to down to North Frontage Road, and then from State Street over to York Street. They cover the sections of Chapel Street, Church Street, and Elm Street opposite the Green, and do not cover the Green itself.
“We have no responsibility on the Green,” McIntosh said.
Hands Off That Trash!
Griswold and McIntosh said that one of the biggest obstacles to stationing ambassadors on the Green is the resistance of Local 71, the city laborer’s union that represents parks department employees.
According to a 2015 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city parks department and the Committee of the Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Lands in New Haven, which is the obscure, private self-perpetuating organization that has legally owned the city’s central square for the past 200 years, the parks department is de facto responsible for maintaining the Green as if it were a public park.
Neither the MOU nor the Local 71 contract specifically details which park maintenance responsibilities are to be the sole purview of city employees.
The 2015 MOU does recognize, however, that “The City has, as a matter of long-standing practice, managed and maintained the Green in accordance with the practices and policies of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees.” It also describes a capital improvement plan that includes proposed improvements to the Green’s irrigation, drainage, and electrical systems, with the understanding that city employees will do that work.
Jim Wankowicz, the president of Local 71, said that his union represents two parks employees who are assigned full-time to the Green. He said the union also represents city employees whose work brings them to the Green several times a year.
Local 71 employees are responsible for cleaning trash from the Green, cutting trees, and providing electrical services for special events, among other responsibilities.
Wankowicz said that in early 2017, his union filed a Municipal Prohibited Practice (MPP) complaint against the city with the Connecticut State Board of Labor Relations because of what it saw as incursions by Town Green District ambassadors onto city employee work responsibilities on the Green. In particular, he said, ambassadors were pulling and emptying trash cans from the Green
“We’re trying to secure our purpose on the Green,” he said. “We’re the maintainers of the Green.”
Wankowicz said that the union ultimately withdrew its MPP from the state labor board.
City Labor Relations Director Tom McCarthy said the state board informally noted that the city does not own the Green; the proprietors do. Therefore, the proprietors, not the city, are ultimately in charge of who does what work on the Green. The city cannot be held responsible for decisions made by the proprietors.
In 2016, several months before Wankowicz’s union filed its complaint, the proprietors and the Town Green District did indeed engage in a 21-week pilot to place an ambassador on the Green full time.
Griswold said the Town Green District paid $10,000 and the proprietors ponied up another $10,000 to have an ambassador work on an eight-hour shift on the Green, seven days a week for 21 weeks.
Griswold and McIntosh said that the Town Green District has ambassadors keep track of nearly every interaction they have over the course of a shift, particularly for ones in which they have to call in the police or emergency medical responders.
That 21-week pilot “showed us how many daily problems there are on the Green,” Griswold said. McIntosh said that one employee on the Green recorded more adverse interactions over the course of the 21-week-pilot than all of the other nearly two dozen ambassadors combined over the course of the same period.
Wankowicz told the Independent that, even though he opposes ambassadors doing any maintenance work on the Green, he has no problem with safety ambassadors making the rounds on the city’s downtown square. He said that that work, however, may infringe upon the city police’s responsibilities on the Green.
During a recent Downtown-Wooster Square Community Management Team (DWSCMT) meeting specifically about what the city and neighbors can do to address drug addiction-related concerns on the Green, Lt. Mark O’Neill, the neighborhood’s top cop, said he is fully in support of Town Green District ambassadors working on the Green.
“I’ve gone to the proprietors and I’ve spoken to them and I’ve made it publicly clear that I think the Town Green safety ambassadors should be on the Green,” he told the attendees at Tuesday night’s meeting. “That puts more people, more eyes, more uniforms on the Green.”
He said that as long as they don’t clear any trash and infringe on the work of the city laborer’s union, he sees no problem with the safety ambassadors walking around the Green and serving as an extra pair of eyes and ears for the city’s police and other emergency responders.
So what’s stopping the Town Green District and the proprietors from putting ambassadors on the Green tomorrow?
Janet Bond Arterton, a federal judge who chairs the Proprietors committee, said that the proprietors are also open to having safety ambassadors on the Green.
“We do not oppose the ambassador program,” she said. “We are happy to encourage new ideas through pilots” like the one that Town Green District and the ambassadors engaged in in 2016.
However, she said, the proprietors cannot afford to pay for a full-time ambassador out of its own pockets.
“We are just not going to take on that ongoing operating expense,” she said. “We have said before that they are welcome to come on the green. Their presence on the Green to give information to people, to be an assistance to people, to calm people down who might be heading towards an argument, and to promptly call a particular agency, like the police, those are all good things. We certainly welcome that, but we are not going to be able to pay for that.”
Griswold said that the Town Green District is also interested in setting up a safety ambassador on the Green, but that they too cannot afford to foot the bill alone.
“We can’t go on the Green for free,” Griswold said. “It’d be a disservice to other businesses that do pay.”
Griswold said that placing a safety ambassador or two on the Green would have to be a collaboration between the proprietors, the Town Green District, the city police, Yale police, the churches on the Green, and any other constituents with a vested stake in the welfare of the Green.
He said that Yale pays a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) to the Town Green District every year to have ambassadors patrol the areas of downtown near the university. He said that Gateway Community College also chips in an annual PILOT for ambassador coverage.
He said stationing a Green ambassador would likely require a similar PILOT from the proprietors, or a combination of other stakeholders on the Green.
“We have the capability for intervention,” McIntosh said about how ambassadors can in theory assist the city in responding to the next wave of overdoses to hit the Green.
But Griswold said he doesn’t currently see any way out of the financial bind and potential for future city-related labor disputes presented by having ambassadors permanently stationed on the Green.
“At this point,” he said, “it’s not going to happen.”