West Haven City Council approves 5-year plan that would raise taxes
A pained City Council voted by an 11-1 margin Monday, Oct. 29, to approve a 5-year fiscal recovery plan submitted to the state Municipal Accountability Review Board that would increase the citywide real estate tax rate from 36.26 to 39.99 over five years.
Councilman Aaron Charney, D-3, voted against it. Councilwoman Portia Bias, D-7, was absent.
The plan also would increase the additional real estate tax rate for the area covered by the City of West Haven Fire Department - Allingtown from 14 mills to 15.5 mills over five years.
And because of an adjustment related to underfunded health benefits in the current budget, Allingtown real estate taxes also will rise by 0.94 mill this fiscal year, with supplemental tax bills to go out in the near future.
The five-year plan, which the MARB’s West Haven Subcommittee approved last Tuesday by a 3-1 vote with one abstention, goes before the full MARB at a meeting in Hartford Thursday morning.
The motor vehicle rate would remain at 37 mills.
Several council members said that while they found the tax increases to be distasteful, the city needs $16 million in state funds that would come to the city once the plan gains MARB approval, including $8 million to fill a hole in the last fiscal year’s budget and $8 million for the current fiscal year.
MARB chairman and state Office of Policy & Management Secretary Ben Barnes told the council that without approval of the supplemental tax increase to cover current year’s expenses, “I do believe that the chance of accessing the $16 million is extremely slim.”
The council also voted to designate Chairman Ronald Quagliani, D-At Large, as the council’s representative who will sit on an expanded MARB along with Mayor Nancy Rossi and non-voting City Treasurer Michael Last at a second MARB meeting Thursday to consider whether West Haven should be moved to the tighter supervision of Tier 4.
Barnes told the council that if the MARB approves the 5-year plan, it’s unlikely that it would vote to move West Haven to Tier 4.
The vote came after a fair amount of soul searching by council members.
“West Haven is in a dire financial positon” and “it will take decades to rectify the situation,” said Councilman Nick Ruickoldt, D-2, saying that the city was “at a crucial moment.”
“We cannot go back and change the beginning, but we can start where we are and change the ending,” Ruickoldt said. “As a council, it is our responsbility to start the city down the right path. ... It is time now to say no — no to continuing to borrow from future generations ... and no to kicking the can down the road.”
Charney said the city needs to change the way it does business, because it keeps relying on money it doesn’t have “like it falls from the sky.”
Every time city officials think about raising taxes, they need to “think about it again,” he said.
He also suggested that perhaps it’s time to sit down with officials at University of New Haven and Yale University “and see if they’d be willing to give us money” in the form of voluntary payments.
Charney said that “Yale gives to New Haven. Quinnipiac gives to Hamden” and “Connecticut College gives to New London.”
Council Majority Leader Robbin Watt Hamilton, D-5, said, “This is a very hard or difficult position that we find ourselves in” but “we do not want to endure the wrath of Tier 4.”
Councilman Peter Massaro, D-6, a former Allingtown fire chief — and still an Allingtown resident — said it was hard for him to vote for the 0.94-mill supplemental tax increase, but said he would vote for it “because I don’t want to go into Tier 4,” which would strip the city of some of it’s decision-making authority.
Councilwoman Tracy Morrissey, D-8, said she came to the meeting “with the intention to vote no on the 5-year plan,” but said, “I can’t turn away $16 million, because the people are struggling.”
But “we need to make changes,” she said.
Minority leader Richard DePalma, R-At Large, who also lives in Allingtown, said he was prepared to support the supplemental increase and the 5-year plan, and “my only concern is, are we going to be here again?
“It seems to me, after 25 years, we’ve learned nothing,” DePalma said.
Council members Mitchell Gallignano, D-4, and Bridgette Hoskie, D-1, also spoke reluctantly in favor of the 5-year plan
Rossi said she thought that charter revision, which is currently under way, is likely to be a key element in helping West Haven to operate better in the future.
“I don’t know yet” what will come out of that process, she said, “but I know one thing: we can’t continue going the way we’ve been going.”
She said the 5-year plan before the council was “the best plan that we could put forward. I hope that people on this council support it.”
In fact, “To me, this is our only option right now,” she said. “We need that $16 million.”
Quagliani said “it took us 35 years to get here,” but “I’m very comfortable with moving this forward.”
Barnes said, in response to a question from Morrissey, that from the state’s perspective, City Council approval wasn’t necessary and the mayor has authority to submit the plan. But “that’s a (city) charter question,” he said. And whether approval was legally necessary, “If the mayor were to submit a plan and the council to disavow it ... I believe that would undermine it.”
“In order for you to have the maximum support on the MARB, I believe” it’s important for the council to approve the plan, he said.