West Haven mayor’s budget proposal draws fire

WEST HAVEN >> Eighty-five people came out to the Bailey Middle School auditorium Monday night for the City Council’s public hearing on Mayor Ed O’Brien’s $162.77 million recommended budget for fiscal 2017-2018, with speakers calling for more money for education and the public library, as well as tighter fiscal discipline and greater state support.

“While we greatly appreciate our budget not being cut this year, a zero percent increase leaves us struggling,” said Colleen Bailie, executive director of the West Haven Public Library, one of 14 people to speak after a short budget presentation by O’Brien. The library faces 2 percent in contractual increases and the recommended flat budget “leaves us $80,000 short,” Bailie said, adding that the library would likely have to cut hours if it doesn’t get more money.

“Please support the library so we can continue our goal of serving the residents of West Haven,” Bailie said.

Marilyn Halligan, co-president of the school system’s paraprofessionals union, spoke “to express our concern that the mayor’s budget does not allocate enough money to the Board of Education.”

The amount allocated for education, “does not keep up with the contractual obligations,” Halligan said. “We are asking you to make education your priority” this season, she said.

Sandra Lorusso, a secretary at Carrigan Intermediate School, pointed out that school “paras have gone without a raise for the past five years.

“This is just ridiculousness,” she said. “Every one of you that sits on the council, when you look at this, you should look at education.” She urged them to “lay off some people and give the money to education.”

O’Brien’s recommended budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year represents a $5.19 million, or 3.3 percent, increase over the current fiscal year but would keep the city’s tax rate at the current 35.26 mills, though fire district tax will add anywhere from 8 to 12 mills to that. The largest chunk of that — $3.08 million — would be an increase in debt service as a result the upcoming deficit financing the city plans to pay off its $16.3 million cumulative general fund unassigned fund balance deficit over 10 years. That would represent a 17.8 percent increase in the city’s debt service line item.

Each mill corresponds to $1 for every $1,000 in assessed property value.

O’Brien cut the Board of Education’s requested budget to $89.63 million — the same amount as this year — from the board’s request of $90.73 million, which would have represented a $1.1 million, or 1.2 percent, increase over the current year.

The city side of the budget, which has seen little increase in recent years, would increase by a total of $5.19 million, or 7.8 percent, over this fiscal year.

Superintendent of Schools Neil Cavallaro, who was the first speaker, told the council that he realizes that “in many ways our city and our state are at a crossroad” and, as Gov. Dannel Malloy’s budget — which would benefit West Haven — is debated in Hartford, “you are being asked to finalize a product long before the state passes a budget that will determine how we move forward.

“Both the Board of Education and I recognized this early on in our budget deliberations, and as a result, have asked for one of the lowest increases in recent memory,” Cavallaro said.

The proposed education budget “does not propose the elimination of any programs, nor would any current employee lose a job,” he said. But “next year there will be fewer clerical positions, custodians, teachers, administrators and paraprofessionals” as positions are left unfilled as they become vacant.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t point out to you that many of our bargaining groups have sacrificed, changed their benefit plans and have given up positions already, in an effort to save the board and the city money, and keep the quality of services offered to our children at a high level,” Cavallaro said.

But the district “faces many challenges,” Cavallaro said, urging the council appropriate more money for West Haven schools should additional funds become available when the state finally adopts its budget.

Tracey Acquarulo, vice president of the West Haven Federation of Teachers, urged the council to “take on the the responsibility with the BOE’s budget. ... I implore you to fully fund the budget,” she said. “I implore you to take on the responsiblity and choose the education” that West Haven’s children deserve.

The roster of speakers included at least three members of announced Democratic mayoral challenger Nancy Rossi’s ticket: former councilwoman Rossi, former councilman Mike Last, who is running for city treasurer with Rossi, and Chris Vargo, who said he plans to run for City Council.

Rossi said she was “deeply concerned with the financial direction our city is heading in” and expressed concerns that O’Brien’s budget “relies on increased revenue ... from the state of Connecticut, which may not materialize. If West Haven is unable to capture these new state monies, we will once again have an immediate deficit to close,” she said.

“This is not a budget I would classify as fair to all of West Haven, because nothing’s changed!” Rossi said. “While some departments, namely education, the library and public safety, continue to tow the line, select individuals are receiving multi-thousands-dollar raises. ... Positions seem to be created for a select group of well-connected individuals, yet the bill is given to all of the taxpayers to pay.”

Last said O’Brien “has delivered three consecutive budgets that resulted in large deficits.” The proposed budget, “as it sits before you, already is $7-8 million in the hole,” he charged, calling it “a typical West Haven election-year budget.”

Resident John Pascale said that while the budget would not raise taxes, “We just can’t take away from our children.”

Resident Dale Eisele said the council “must make cuts — hard cuts” and said, “It really makes no sense to me that you talk about bonding (to build a new) high school, without putting money into paying off existing debt.”

While the overall budget does not include a tax increase, the separate tax rate to fund the formerly-independent City of West Haven Fire Department — Allingtown, which is now part of the city, would rise by 1.46 mills, from 11.07 mills to 12.53 mills, according to the mayor’s budget.

Mayor O’Brien’s recommendation raised it from the 11.81 the department had proposed. That tax increase would apply only to taxpayers within the area that the Alllingtown department serves.

The city’s budget figures do not include the additional tax rates for the still-independent West Shore and First, or Center, fire districts, which in West Haven are assessed separately from and in addition to city taxes. Those will be set this Spring by the Center and West Shore boards of fire commissioners.

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