Amid brewing power struggles with the city’s legislative body, Mayor Toni Harp used her annual “State of the City” address to remind alders of all that they have accomplished by working together.
Harp delivered the address in the Aldermanic Chamber Monday night.
She opened her remarks by recognizing Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker’s historic role as the first female leader of that body.
“For the first time in our town’s storied history, a State of the City address is being delivered while a woman is at the helm of the city’s legislative branch,” Harp said. “I think that’s wonderful.”
The shout-outs continued from there.
Harp said the city “is in a state of transformation,” and she made a point to run down the steps forward that her administration, working with members of the Board of Alders, have made during the first two years of that metamorphosis.
“In New Haven, elected officials, city workers and the city’s many, many partners make a great team,” she said. “I’m glad to be part of it.”
She noted the city’s improved performance on clearing snow in the wake of Winter Storm Jonas. She tipped her hat to Morris Cove Alder Sal DeCola, who chaired a subcommittee that pushed the administration to up its snow-clearing game and participated in meetings with city and elected officials that started back during the summer.
Harp also pointed to the city’s improved financial outlook under her administration, which includes the elimination of its $14 million debt and a rainy day fund that went from non-existent two years ago to $1.6 million.
“It’s not enough, but it beats zero,” Harp said of the rainy day fund.
Harp noted that the city’s improved finances also could be attributed in part to the reduction of overtime in the police and fire departments by 18 percent and 56 percent, respectively. She credited the reduction in part to the Board of Alders’ commitment to hiring more police officers and firefighters.
Some of the biggest applause of the night came when Harp mentioned progress on the long-awaited rebuilding of the Dixwell Q House community center. Now that the state has approved $14.5 million in bonding to build it, Harp expects to begin demolishing the abandoned current structure this spring or summer, and building the new facility in the fall. Harp also reminded the audience that the Q House will be home to the new Stetson library branch, which just received a $1 million grant to underwrite its construction.
Harp also noted that New Haven earned national recognition for reaching disengaged youth, reestablishing community policing and aligning the city’s library system with public school curriculum. Of two recent trips to Washington, D.C. she said, “New Haven glistened brightly in the company of other, perhaps larger and wealthier cities, and every time it does, it confirms how we are a city in transformation—advancing our position as a leading American city in public policy and delivery of services, across-the-board.”
What Got Left In
The items Harp left in her speech earned plaudits from alders.
Freshman Hill Alder David Reyes got the distinction of being part of the committee of alders who escorted Harp for the address. He said he was impressed to hear that the city was making a name for itself on a national level, and credited Harp for “representing New Haven to the fullest.” “I love that the city is doing great things to keep our kids engaged, particularly around attendance,” he said.
“I’m so excited about the libraries and how they are transforming and growing. With this new Q House, my ward is going to have one of the biggest libraries in the city ... because it’s going to be a new, two-floor, state-of-the-art facility,” said Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison “The address really just outlined everything we’re doing, and as a legislator it helps me to see that all those meetings I go to—it’s not in vain.”
East Rock Alder Jessica Holmes praised the public celebration of the Q House and Morrison’s efforts, in collaboration with the Dixwell community and the state legislative delegation, to move the needle significantly on that project. “There aren’t very many times where you get to see that because change happens brick by brick,” she said. “What’s happening with the Q House has taken a long time to get this close, and so it’s huge to celebrate that and give that some time to shine.”
Westville Alder Adam Marchand complimented the administration’s continued attention to the fiscal health of the city. “I think in the prior administration not enough attention was given to these types of back-to-basics financial management practices like having money in a rainy day fund and looking to improve your bond rating,” he said. “Those things end up making a big difference, and I think the city’s fiscal management has been a lot more sound under her administration.”
What Got Left Out
But Marchand said he had hopes of hearing the mayor tout the recent agreement between Yale University and New Haven activists to have the university hire 1,000 city residents over the next three years.
“That sounds like a really big deal, and it’s kind of surprising that that wasn’t anywhere in her address,” he said. “That has the opportunity to be really transformational and if more employers do that, that would be even more transformational. I don’t know how you have a speech about transformation and you don’t mention that.”
The mayor also didn’t bring up the fact that the Board of Alders filed suit last week against the Board of Education, of which she is the president. She and the alders are in a power struggle over the size of the ed board. In addition, the alders stopped her administration last year from accepting state money to build a new home for the Strong School in conjunction with Southern Connecticut State University, an ongoing sore point between the two branches of government as Harp seeks to win approval of the project again this year.
Rather than specifically mention those conflicts, Harp discussed the city’s ongoing efforts to target underperforming schools and then added: “In a transformative New Haven, there is simply not enough time to spend even a minute, and there is certainly not enough money to spend even a nickel on petty, picayune distractions.”
The state is offering the city another chance at building the school. Alder Morrison, a key opponent of the plan last year, said Monday night that the board will take a look at whether building the school is in the city’s best fiscal interest, just as it did last year.
“We said that we would look at it last year, and we always keep our word,” she said. “We have to make decisions that are for the greater good of the entire city and we will look at the Strong School in the context of what is good for the city.”
Asked for comment, Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker issued a joint written statement with Majority Leader Alphonse Paolillo Jr: “We will continue to work in partnership with the Mayor and the hardworking city employees in their efforts to improve the quality of life for our residents and the stature of our city. We look forward to doing our part by collaborating with them to implement any initiatives that are consistent with our legislative priorities.”
While Harp mentioned how food trucks are contributing to the city’s small business economy and invited everyone to the city’s second annual food truck festival coming up this summer, she didn’t address how controversial plans being considered by the city institute up to $5,100 a year in licenses might impact some of those businesses.
East Rock Alder Anna Festa said she wanted more details on Harp’s announcement in her address of plans to provide WiFi on the Green as part of planned upgrades. Festa said there was previously talk of a plan for citywide WiFi, and she wants to know if that is still on the agenda, and if not, why. She gave Harp kudos for the steps that have been taken to improve the city’s financial outlook and said she believes that the city “has been undergoing a transformation in a positive direction, but there’s always more to be done.”
“I just hope that once the [proposed new fiscal-year] budget comes out March 1 that there aren’t any surprises for the taxpayers,” Festa said. She said she anticipates that some disagreements lay ahead, but as long as the two sides work through them collaboratively, the city will continue to move forward in the right direction.
“It’s OK to argue. It’s OK to disagree. And it’s each of our jobs to try to convince each other of why we feel so strongly about a certain opinion,” she said. “So having conversations is something newer for this administration versus the last administration, and there is a cohesion I think that didn’t exist before. It’s almost like morale is stronger than it has been and that’s a good thing.”