State MARB approves West Haven’s 5-year plan, $16 million in state aid
The state Municipal Accountability Review Board gave long-awaited approval to West Haven’s five-year fiscal recovery plan by an 8-3 vote Thursday, Nov. 1, then voted by a 10-0-1 margin to give the city $16 million in recovery funds, with some conditions.
MARB member Bart Shuldman voted no on the five-year plan and abstained on the funding. He was joined by members David Walker and Patrick Egan in opposing the five-year plan.
An expanded version of the MARB that also included West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi, City Council Chairman Ron Quagliani, D-At Large, and city Treasurer Michael Last held — and closed — a subsequent meeting on whether to move the city to the higher supervision of Tier IV without taking a vote.
Several of the expanded MARB’s members expressed the opinion that while the option to move the city to Tier IV remains a possibility, now is not the time. Both meetings took place in the State Board of Regents Boardroom on Woodland Street in Hartford.
Under the terms of the approval, the state will pay West Haven up to $8 million for fiscal 2018 and 25 percent of the $8 million set aside for fiscal 2019 by Dec. 31, 2018. It then would pay West Haven an additional 25 percent by April 30, 2019, and the final 50 percent by June 30, 2019.
That is subject to a number of conditions.
Those include that any portion of the state aid may be withheld if the $1.75 million for prior deficit reduction in the fiscal 2019 budget is used for any other purpose or if $250,000 that the city is supposed to pay for MARB expense is not transferred to the state Office of Policy and Management.
Money also may be withheld until the city submits and the MARB accepts the city’s plan to do “a complete study, with recommendations, of West Haven’s three fire departments” with an eye toward possible consolidation, and a vendor has been selected to do the study.
In addition, no payment will be made toward the payments scheduled after Dec. 31 until the state receives the city’s final audit for fiscal 2018. “That’s a challenge,” said MARB Chairman Ben Barnes, secretary of the state Office of Policy and Management. “They have not been able to complete the audit on time” in a number of years.
Three other conditions added at Walker’s request Thursday include receipt of a management letter related to the city’s audit, that the city look into possible shared regional services that could save money in addition to fire district consolidation, and submit a revised five-year plan next year.
The April 30, 2019, payment may be withheld until the city submits several requested studies — included a completed consolidation study — and the June 30, 2019, payment will be held until the MARB approves the city’s fiscal 2020 budget and an update to the five-year plan, along with evidence that it has fully funded the Allingtown fire department pension plan.
Even MARB members who voted in favor of the five-year plan had concerns, as did those who voted against it.
“What concerns me about the five-year plan ... is that it still requires money from the state ... when we don’t know if that money’s going to be available” beyond next year, said Shuldman.
Barnes points out that at Monday night’s West Haven City Council meeting, at which the council approved the plan, “several members made comments that were in line with your own.” But he said it’s very common for municipalities “to adopt budgets that rely on estimates of state aid” that may or may not pan out.
But while there were a number of concerns, MARB member Sal Luciano, who made the motion to approve the five-year plan, said that while West Haven officials did not always move fast enough to provide what the MARB asked, “from my view, every hoop that we’ve asked them to jump through,” they did.
MARB member Mark Waxenberg said that West Haven officials “made a good-faith effort” to put together the best five-year plan that they could.
“I am not totally convinced that there will not be bumps” along the way, “but I’m satisfied to this point that they’ve made an effort ... to get us to where we are,” he said.
MARB member Tom Hamilton, a onetime West Haven finance director who now is the top finance official for the Norwalk school system, agreed, and said, “I think West Haven has stepped up in other ways, including dealing with the Allingtown situation in the current fiscal year” by imposing a supplemental tax.
“I think that that is a really extraordinary step,” he said.
Walker said he could not vote for the five-year plan because West Haven “is asking for $28 million” over the full five years, but “has only identified $5 million in savings” in its budget.
Several MARB members pointed out that only the $16 million for fiscal 2019 and fiscal 2020 are appropriated by the state.
Shuldman criticized West Haven for “providing documents the night before meetings” and said, “The way this budget is balanced is on tax increases to the residents and upon money from the state.”
MARB member Patrick Egan, former assistant chief / executive officer for the New Haven Fire Department — and also former president of the New Haven firefighters union — raised a number of concerns and said West Haven “has been before this board since January” and has taken this long to finally start addressing its problems.
“The times for half-measures really are over,” he said. “They need to seriously look at their budget” and begin making changes.
Barnes, who will be leaving the MARB and state government when a new governor is sworn-in, said he does not like the idea of steep cuts in staff or services “because that damages the city in other ways.”
It makes more sense to rely on “a gradual decrease in state aide” so the city can make changes in a way “that preserves the quality of life,” he said.
Nevertheless, “I have deep concerns” about the city’s ability to make and maintain changes, Barnes said.