Residents make plea for assistant city planner's job

In the movie Miracle on 34th Street, a stack of letters helps prove that a man on trial is indeed Santa Claus.

This week at Milford City Hall, a secretary in the Planning and Zoning office presented a stack of letters to the Board of Aldermen to prove that the assistant city planner is the real deal in Milford and that it would be a mistake to cut her $77,000 job.

About a dozen people spoke about the city and school spending plans for 2014-15 at Thursday night’s budget hearing: Most of those spoke against cutting the assistant city planner's job, as is recommended in the Board of Finance-approved spending plan. The Board of Aldermen start reviewing the plan now, and they can add the assistant city planner's job back in, but they'd need a two-thirds vote to do that.

Meg Greene, secretary in the Planning and Zoning office, placed a big stack of letters on the podium at City Hall and said there were 127 there, just a portion of the more than 800 letters Harrigan sent to residents telling them what they needed to do after two major storms slashed the shoreline.

“The assistant city planner gave storm victims actionable information,” Greene said. “Ask these homeowners who helped them find their way. And remember, neither of those was a full blown hurricane.”

Greene said Milford has had an assistant city planner since 1957, and with environmental changes, flood plain changes and some devastating storms, she doesn't understand why the city would think about cutting this kind of position now.

“The city needs a professional in shoreline issues,” Greene said.

Mark Lofthouse, a former Planning and Zoning Board member, said that based on news articles he's read, he worries the aldermen have already decided that they aren't going to vote to put the $77,000 assistant city planner's job back in the books.

“Keep an open mind on the assistant city planner's job,” Lofthouse urged.

He and others said that Harrigan is a coastal management expert whose knowledge has been vital, especially following storms Sandy and Irene. And while Mayor Ben Blake said eliminating the job is in line with recommendations from the Kimball Report Implementation Team (KRIT) report in 2009 that made suggestions for streamlining the city’s land use offices, Lofthouse and others said the report does not suggest eliminating the position.

Several current Planning and Zoning Board members  — Jeanne Cervin and John Grant, plus Terrence Copeland, who wrote a letter to the aldermen — made similar pleas at the hearing. They said Harrigan's input and guidance is invaluable.

Residents Jennifer Ju and Thomas Beirne spoke of times when Harrigan patiently and competently helped them through processes. For Ju, it concerned repairs to a beach area home after Sandy. For Beirne, it was a matter of dealing with a change in the flood zone status of his home. In both cases, Harrigan was there.

Ju said many people are still rebuilding after storms Irene and Sandy, and therefore a lot of people will need Harrigan's help.

Barbara Bell, a local environmentalist and member of the Connecticut Siting Council, asked the board for facts that support eliminating the job. If it's a matter of saving money, then any salary could be cut, she said.

“I'm willing to be convinced,” Bell said, “but so far I haven't seen enough evidence.”

The city is about two-thirds of the way through the 2014-15 budget making process.

So far, the mill rate is expected to jump 5.75%. But Mayor Blake has said he hopes that number may come down as the budget process continues.

At this stage of the budget process, taxes are expected to rise $329 on the typical Milford home with a market value of $311,070. For the typical homeowner, that's an additional $27 a month. That represents a mill rate increase of 1.51 mills, from 26.28 to 27.79 mills.

The $199.35 million budget proposal marks a $5.3 million increase in spending over the current year.

Blake has said much of the increase is “unavoidable.” Increases in pension contributions, debt payments and health care costs, plus wage increases, account for $5 million of the increased costs, he said.

The aldermen will discuss budget line items during meetings this month before voting on a new budget in May.