State MARB prepared to push West Haven into Tier 4 if Council doesn't pass budget by June 7

West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi, right, speaks to state Municipal Accountability Review Board Chairman Benjamin Barnes on Thursday, May 24, at a meeting of the state Municipal Accountability Review Board's Ad Hoc Committee for West Haven.

West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi, right, speaks to state Municipal Accountability Review Board Chairman Benjamin Barnes on Thursday, May 24, at a meeting of the state Municipal Accountability Review Board's Ad Hoc Committee for West Haven.

The state review board working with West Haven to get out of its current fiscal hole would consider pushing the city into Tier 4, which would give the state additional control, if West Haven doesn’t pass a revised budget by June 7, its chairman said Thursday, May 24.

Municipal Accountability Review Board Chairman Benjamin Barnes, secretary of the state Office of Policy and Management, said at a meeting in City Hall Friday morning that he will attend Tuesday night’s special meeting of the City Council to tell council members in person.

“It is my preference, my strong preference, that the city come together to solve its own problems,” he said. “But I am concerned” that if the city doesn’t pass a more realistic budget soon, “there will be no ability to continue to provide public services ... or that it will be murky how to do that.”

He said he was worried about the city being in “an untenable situation” if the council can’t muster the votes necessary to pass an amended budget.

“I’m also hoping that the prospect of losing significant authority by the local board ... will help sharpen their focus,” Barnes said at the meeting of the MARB’s Ad Hoc Committee for West Haven.

Mayor Nancy Rossi sat at the table in the Board of Education second-floor meeting room with Barnes and other MARB members. Council Chairman Ron Quagliani, D-At Large, and council Finance Committee Chairwoman Louise Martone, D-10, sat in the front row as Barnes spoke.

Quagliani later said , “I appreciate the expertise that the MARB board is giving us, but this this is a local issue that we need to solve locally. We were elected by our constituency to make these hard decisions and we need to come together and make them.”

Asked whether he thought that was likely to happen Tuesday, Quagliani said, “I am always hopeful.”

Rossi hailed Barnes’ offer to attend Tuesday’s council meeting, telling him, “I would love for you to do that.”

She told Barnes that it would likely make a difference for council members — who need a nine-vote “supermajority” in order to make any changes in the existing budget proposed by Rossi — to hear it straight from Barnes.

“We have been working, together, to try to achieve” a budget that meets MARB requirements, Rossi said.

“We are working diligently. ... We’re almost there,” Rossi said. “I really am hopeful that we will have the nine votes. Can I guarantee that? No.”

The budget went into effect by default after the council failed to get enough votes to make changes on May 3.

West Haven has yet to set its tax rate; a tactical move because if it had set one, it wouldn’t be able to make changes until July 1 and would have had to send out two sets of tax bills.

“We are almost there,” Rossi said, referring to her efforts with council leaders to come up with an agreeable budget solution. “We’ve made changes. We are almost there with something that we believe will satisfy the resolution” that the MARB previously passed.

She said of Tuesday’s special meeting, “We plan on going forward with that ... and hopefully, we will have a budget that night and a mill rate ... which we will forward to the MARB so that you can take action on June 7.”

The only two municipalities in the state working with the MARB — West Haven and Hartford — both currently are at Tier 3, which gives the MARB input and the ability to reject budgets and labor contracts.

Tier 4 would give the MARB the ability to implement its own interim budget for the city and open existing labor contracts.

Barnes said Thursday there are three ways that West Haven can be moved to Tier 4. The City Council can vote to do it, the mayor can ask to do it and then have the council vote on it or the MARB can made a recommendation.

In the latter case, there then would be a 30-day comment period, after which the governor could elect to move the city into Tier 4, he said.

Barnes said later that “doing it through Tier IV is definitely the hard way,” but “there are some benefits to Tier IV in the collective bargaining process.”

Barnes also told city officials that he thinks the long-debated consolidation of West Haven’s three fire departments should be part of the city’s five-year plan for recovery.

“I’m not going to tell you how to do it,” Barnes said. But “I will tell you” that looking at the number of fire departments that provide fire service to the city and how that’s done “is a potentially very fruitful area” to find savings.

He suggested that despite concerns by Mayor Nancy Rossi, who said she has no control over the remaining two independent fire districts and can’t force them to do anything.

“They’re not against sitting at the table,” Rossi told Barnes, with the West Haven and West Shore fire chiefs sitting in the room. But she questioned whether anything could be worked out quickly enough to meet the MARB’s timetable for West Haven to submit a five-year recovery plan.

Barnes told Rossi that “if you have a reasonable plan that includes time for negotiations ” and to investigate changes in the city’s fire service “you should include them in the plan” and can always change them later.

MARB member Tom Hamilton told Rossi, “You should not assume big savings in the first year because that’s not realistic ... but you can set reasonable assumptions about what the savings targets are going to look like.”