MARB to hold meeting to consider pushing West Haven into Tier IV
The state Municipal Accountability Review Board working with West Haven to improve its finances voted Friday, Sept. 14, to hold a meeting to discuss forcing West Haven into the tighter control of Tier IV.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Tier IV is inevitable, the MARB’s chairman, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes, said after the meeting in the Legislative Office Building.
“I’m not sure how I stand,” Barnes said after the 5-4 vote, with one abstention.
Tier 4, which several MARB members also have said they hope to avoid, is a higher level of supervision under which the MARB would have the power to pass and implement an interim budget, raise the city’s tax rate or impose mid-year spending cuts and have greater latitude to approve or disapprove new labor contracts.
The vote came at a meeting at which West Haven presented the latest draft of its proposed five-year plan — MARB approval of which is required before $8 million in state emergency funding for last fiscal year and an additional $8 million for the current fiscal year can be released.
The draft — not yet approved — currently calls for the city to raise its real estate tax rate from 36.26 mills to 39.99 mills over the five years. During the same period, the Allingtown fire tax rate would rise from 13.06 mills to 15.45 mills. Motor vehicle tax rates would remain at current rates.
While Barnes voted in favor of the motion by MARB member Bart Shuldman to consider Tier IV, “I actually really want to get the (five-year) plan together” without moving West Haven into Tier IV, he said. “But there are still some really important issues” that West Haven must deal with.
While Barnes is unsure of how he might ultimately vote, “I think it’s not appropriate for me to set up procedural obstacles to going to Tier IV” if that’s where other MARB members want West Haven to go, he said.
“I’m willing to set up a meeting to have the discussion,” Barnes said. “But I’m not in a hurry” to make a decision.
Were West Haven to go into Tier IV, the MARB would be expanded to also include West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi and City Council Chairman Ron Quagliani, D-At Large. Barnes said he would invite both of them to represent the city at the meeting.
“It’s disappointing, because I’ve really tried at all the meetings to take to heart all of what they have said,” said Rossi after the meeting. “I’m just going to keep working” to steer West Haven along the road to greater stability, she said.
“I think there are certain members of the state MARB that understand that there’s got to be a degree of patience, and there’s others that don’t ... and they’re asking us to fix the issues of the past 25 years in one year,” said Quagliani.
“Hopefully, they’ll allow us the latitude that we need to get there,” said Quagliani, who was unable to attend Friday’s meeting. “I’m in the camp that we need to show the benchmarks” to demonstrate progress, “but we don’t have to fix this in one year. It would devastate our community” to try to do too much, too fast, he said.
The vote to hold the Tier IV meeting grew out of Shuldman’s irritation and impatience with West Haven’s response to various requests the MARB has sent its way in recent months.
Shuldman expressed displeasure that West Haven didn’t provide the MARB with detailed fiscal reports from July and August, as Hartford has done.
Linda Savitsky, a former Office of Policy and Management staffer who until recently was the city’s acting finance director, is now a consultant working with it, pointed out that West Haven doesn’t have the staff to respond as quickly as Hartford.
“We’re still trying to wrap our arms around fiscal ’18,” she said.
Shuldman reiterated past MARB suggestions that if West Haven doesn’t have enough staff, it should hire more people.
As he spoke, Rossi was flanked by Savitsky — now a fiscal consultant for the city — and Jack Reagan, a partner in UHY Advisors, a national public accounting firm that West Haven also recently hired, at the MARB’s urging, as a consultant to help write the five-year plan and guide the city to stability.
Behind them sat Ronald Cicatelli, whom Rossi recently hired to be West Haven’s new finance director.
Barnes told the MARB that OPM has been in contact with recently retired Cheshire Town Manager Michael Milone, whom it hopes to hire “to represent us in West Haven.” Milone previously spent a decade as Cheshire’s finance director, and before that spent six years as New Haven’s controller.
The hiring of Milone is not yet finalized, but Barnes said he expects to be in a position to finalize it in early October.
Shuldman, an appointee of House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, also appeared annoyed by the fact that Rossi provided the MARB with a new draft of the five-year plan just before Friday’s meeting, after previously forwarding a new draft on Aug. 29.
He initially wanted to take up the idea of pushing West Haven into Tier IV on Friday, but Barnes pointed out that Friday’s was a special meeting and he could not vary the agenda.
Shuldman and new MARB member David Walker both questioned why the city, despite its fiscal challenges, has three fire districts and hasn’t made moves to consolidate.
“Why should you have three fire districts and why should the taxpayers of the state of Connecticut subsidize you for the operation of three fire districts?” asked Walker, who was attending his first MARB meeting.
Rossi said she recently held two meetings with the chief of the West Shore and West Haven fire department. But she pointed out that only the former Allingtown Fire Department is under city control and she has no authority to force the two fire districts that remain independent to consolidate.
Reagan told the MARB that under the draft five-year plan, West Haven would expect to maintain a positive fund balance of two percent of city expenditures by the end of the five years, and would be fully funding police and Allingtown fire department pensions.
The 2 percent, while short of the 5 percent fiscal experts recommend, “I think is a good start,” Reagan said. “I think it’s something that would put them on the path to financial sustainability.”
Right now, West Haven, which last year sold deficit bonds to finance $17.35 million of the city’s accumulated deficit, projects a deficit of nearly $8 million in the 2017-18 fiscal year — in addition to approximately $1.4 million from the 2016-17 fiscal year — for a total of about $9.3 million.