Assistant city planner loses her job to budget cuts

Assistant City Planner Emmeline Harrigan wanted to keep her job.

Some city officials, including Planning & Zoning Board member Jeanne Cervin, had rallied in the past months to argue that Harrigan’s job is vital to the city’s land use offices.

Residents emailed their aldermen, saying that Harrigan had helped them wade through paperwork and red tape after Irene and Sandy ripped through their homes, leaving costly repairs, needed permits and confusion about flood insurance.

But despite efforts by some aldermen to save the position, it was officially cut when the Board of Aldermen voted on the 2014-15 budget Wednesday night.

Several votes concerning Harrigan’s position left some people in the audience scratching their heads, and led one man to say that the Democratic alderman who tried to save the post “got played” by Republicans who didn’t back him.

Harrigan sat in the City Hall meeting room with friends and family as the votes unfolded, and according to one person, the only thing she said after the final vote was taken was, “Politics.”

It was Alderman Frank Smith who made a plea to keep Harrigan’s job. He made a motion to add $77,900 back into the budget to hold the job. The Board of Finance had removed the position when it voted during its phase of the budget process.

Smith said the city has had an assistant city planner many years, and that in the past few years the job has “evolved into a very critical position, becoming the primary contact for all shoreline development.”

The job was almost cut in 2009, but the board voted to restore it then, he said.

Alderman Susan Shaw also went to bat for the assistant city planner. She said she’d just gotten an email from Hillside Avenue residents, who were hit hard by both Irene and Sandy.

The residents said eliminating Harrigan’s position will cause more stress for people along the shore.

“Three quarters of the people whose homes were damaged haven’t rebuilt,” Shaw said. “This affects our most vulnerable residents — they are simply homeowners and taxpayers. If this is a budget issue, it won’t cost the taxpayers one extra dollar.

“We are risking delays and our planning office for no reason,” she added.

Republican Alderman Brian Bier suggested an amendment to Smith’s motion: He wanted the motion to include adding Harrigan’s job but also eliminating a building inspector position at $54,000. The finance board had added the building inspector job when it cut Harrigan’s.

Ultimately, the aldermen decided those needed to be two separate motions, and Smith said Bier could present his motion first.

So, the board voted 14-1 in favor of Bier’s motion to cut the building inspector job.

Next, Democrat Bryan Anderson suggested that $20,000 be added to the budget for seasonal/temporary work to make up for the lost building inspector. That passed by a vote of 10-5.

And then it was Smith’s motion to add Harrigan back in, which required a two-thirds majority to pass because it recommended an expenditure increase.

While Smith and Bier voted in favor, along with six other aldermen, the vote failed 8-7 because it lacked the two-thirds majority.

Republicans Michael Casey, Susan Fontana, Dan German and Anthony Giannattasio voted against it, along with Democrats Martin Hardiman, Nick Veccharelli and Chairman Phillip Vetro.

Democrats Smith,  Greta Stanford, Janet Golden, Shaw, Dora Kubek and Anderson voted to keep Harrigan’s job, as did Republicans Bier and Raymond Vitali.

Harrigan and her supporters got up and left shortly after the vote. The new budget goes into affect July 1, so her position will officially be gone from the city then.

“I was shocked,” Smith said after the vote. “Perhaps I put too much trust in my colleagues. Our mistake was allowing them to reorder the vote.”

Resident Christopher Thomas, who was in the audience, said, “They got played.”

Focus on taxes

“It’s not fun to see anybody not have a job,” said Alderman Veccharelli after the vote. Veccharelli had fought to keep the position five years ago. But this year he said wasn’t the year to add money back into the spending plan after the finance board had removed it.

Mayor Ben Blake said the finance board recommended removing the position after discussions with the director of the department of public land use.

It all had to do with taxes, Veccharelli said.

“I think we’re going to have a sizable tax increase,” he said before the budget vote had taken place. “We’ve been cutting wherever we could. And we have a director who says he wants a building inspector more than the assistant city planner... and he didn’t even get that.”

Taxes on the typical Milford home with a market value of $311,070 will increase $205 next year under the newly adopted city budget.

The Board of Aldermen set a new mill rate of 27.22 Wednesday night, which is up from the current rate of 26.28. That represents a tax rate increase of 3.5%.

Overall, the $198 million spending plan represents a 2.2% spending increase over the current year, much of which Mayor Ben Blake said was unavoidable.