WEST HAVEN >> The City Council approved bonding ordinances for both the long-discussed, amended $17.35 million financing of the city’s accumulated deficit and the $133.25 million West Haven High School reconstruction project late Monday after hours of discussion of both and an earlier anti-bonding rally on the Green.
The twin 12-1 votes, which followed public hearings in front of about 80 people, came along party lines — with Republican Councilman David Riccio, R-at-large, who is running for mayor, casting the lone vote against both.
At the same meeting, the council voted by a similar 12-1 vote to lease a portion of the former Thompson School parking lot to the VA Connecticut Healthcare System’s West Haven Campus for additional VA parking, but held in committee a proposal to sell a portion of the Louis Piantino Allingtown Branch Library parking lot to a developer.
Council Democrats, Mayor Ed O’Brien and Finance Director Kevin McNabola said both long-debated bonding measures will move the city forward. But a number of the residents who spoke at two public hearings questioned whether now is the best time and whether the city, in its current state, can afford a $133 million high school project.
“We ... can’t keep carrying this deficit,” said council Chairman Jim O’Brien, D-6, just before the first vote on the deficit financing. “I’m willing to go along with this, with the recommendations from the financial experts ... and from staff. This isn’t something that came on the agenda last week and we’re approving it ... We’ve been dissecting this for a long time.”
Riccio wondered aloud, with regard to both bonding authorizations, if the bonding “is ... going to be a debt that is incurred to our children and grandchildren,” and asked, “What are we doing toward the future?”
Councilman Ron Quagliani, D-at-large, pointed out that 25 years ago, the city had a $17 million, accumulated deficit, bonded to get out of it “and 25 years later, after three administrations, we’re right back in the same place.”
But he said that this time around, “I don’t envision this deficit bonding program as a last-chance effort to get us by for a few years” but as a chance for a new start.
“It’s critically important to study the past and learn from it ...” he said, adding later, “I believe that this legislation in front of us ... is the first step toward our financial health.”
Mayor O’Brien said of the high school project, “I don’t want my taxes to go up. But I think it’s important that we build this school.”
As he has in the past, he blamed some of the city’s current problems — including the most recent downgrade last year in West Haven’s bond rating — on the fact that the previous council did not approve an earlier deficit reduction plan.
McNabola said that while the price of the high school project, exclusive of the costs of bonding, is $130.3 million, the amount of costs that are not reimbursable by the state actually has dropped from $7.34 million in 2015 to $4 million today, which means the city’s share actually has dropped from $40.15 million to $37.58 million.
The state’s reimbursement rate is 75.36 percent.
Many of the citizens who spoke were cautious, however.
Former Board of Education member Howard Horvath suggested that it was risky to do all that bonding in a year when the supporting state budget is up in the air.
He said he was worried that the governor’s budget, which “steers the budget away from 128 municipalities and their governments and towards” a smaller number of larger cities, including West Haven, “won’t go through.
“The reality is, we really just don’t know what’s going to happen ...” Horvath said. “We can’t count on that funding. These are extremely difficult times for both the state and West Haven” and “in my opinion, I think times ... call for far less risky decisions that won’t result in fiscal catastrophe.”
Dwight Knowles, a former member of the West Haven High School Building Committee, slammed Mayor O’Brien for saying in a recent New Haven Register story that, he “didn’t put the (high school) project on hold,” then read a Jan. 14, 2016 letter from O’Brien to a state official that, Knowles said, “clearly proves that Mayor O’Brien put the high school project on hold.”
Knowles, who was one of several members O’Brien replaced in an overhaul of the committee, said with regard to the high school project, “the decisions made by Mayor O’Brien are bad decisions that are costing the city millions of dollars and resulted in a smaller school. We are paying much more and getting much less.”
He pointed out that a previous design would have cost just $124 million and included 25,000 additional square feet, but “Ed O’Brien stopped the project, resulting in a $9 million increase and the loss of 14 classrooms and one lab.”
Knowles also criticized the plan to begin some work, including conversion of the auxiliary gym for swing space and later the demolition of “G Wing,” where shop classes are taught, before the entire project goes out to bid.
“The council needs to delay the funding of the school until the plans are complete and the project is put out to bid,” he said.
Republican Town Chairwoman Michele Gregorio, who also is a Board of Finance member, compared the deficit financing to using one credit card to pay off another and urged the council to hold off. “There were many suggestions to the mayor of ways to cut,” she said.
Republican Nick Calabria, who was wearing a $100 bill Halloween costume, told the council that “if my taxes go higher than my mortgage, I will leave” and walk out on the mortgage.
In order to pay all his bills now, “I’m very frugal,” he said. “I don’t have things. I don’t have HBO.”
He suggested the city be the same way.
Former councilman Michael Last, who is running for city treasurer on Democratic mayoral challenger Nancy Rossi’s ticket, said Mayor O’Brien inherited a cumulative general fund deficit of $7.8 million when he took office in December 2013 but has more than doubled it to “an alarming $16.8 million” since then.
Last said “the budget for next fiscal year increases spending by $5 million. How do you saddle the taxpayers and borrow $17.35 million and increase spending in the same year?”
The answer, he said, “is poor management and business decision. The mayor obviously does not take his fiduciary responsibility seriously or respect the taxpayers.”
Last also urged the council to wait on the high school bonding and “get all of our project costs negotiated before you authorize funding and begin knocking down parts of the school.”
Prior to the meeting, about 40 people — many of them local Republicans or supporters of Democratic mayoral challenger Rossi — held a rally on the Green in opposition to both bonding proposals.
Speakers included Republican Chairwoman Gregorio, GOP mayoral candidate Riccio, state Rep. Charles Ferraro, R-West Haven, Bridgette Hoskie, who is running for the 1st District council seat on Rossi’s ticket, and relatively new resident Cathy Kerley Fleurant.
Mayor O’Brien stopped by mid-way through the rally and listened, but did not speak.
Riccio said under the current administration, the public is “in the cheap seats” while “the chosen few” run the city. “Stop the political pandering that’s been going on,” he said.
“In West Haven we are the forgotten majority,” Riccio said. Elected officials have “forgotten that they’re representatives of those who elected them.”
Hoskie said “I don’t want to leave to my daughter all the bonded debt ... We have to remember that there are 54,000 residents in the city of West Haven” and “we have to make the city work for all 54,000 and not just the chosen few.”