Ed. Note – This is the next in our series on the Charter Revision Commission’s recommendations. This week Democratic Majority Leader of the CRC, John Carrano is the author.
By John M. Carrano
Democratic Majority Leader
Once upon a time, West Haven was a nice shoreline community where generations of families lived and thrived, working at local companies like Armstrong, Bilco, Miles Lab, then Bayer, and many others. If not employed locally, they endured the 10-minute daily commute to New Haven, the business and banking center of the region, where they enjoyed lifelong careers with companies like SNET, UI, Yale U, the Hospitals, banks, and countless others. Boy, have times changed. We are not a small town any longer and what is required of the city leaders has become more complicated than ever before. We have 55,000 citizens, almost 1,200 employees, $163 million in expenses, a bond rating one level above junk, and the state has had to bail us out twice since we became a city in 1961.
The CRC took a long, hard look at our city history during this process, and considered what we were, and what we have become, along with the complexity of today’s world. We didn’t just look at the nuts and bolts of our city charter, we analyzed the big picture and came to the conclusion that, since we cannot turn back the clock, our only choice was to look ahead.
Let’s take a look at exactly what we are expecting from our mayor. We expect the mayor to come into office and on day-1 be an expert in dtate/municipal policies and procedures, be a seasoned manager and leader, understand pensions and 401k retirement structures, be a budget expert, a contract negotiator, an economic development genius, a financial specialist so we can invest our funds into the best Short Term Investment Accounts, be politically savvy, have excellent administrative skills and the ability to attract businesses, jobs and tourists along with superior communication skills.
Certainly, in a city of 55,000 people, there are plenty of qualified candidates to choose from. West Haven has some highly qualified people who no doubt can come to work on day-1 with many, if not all, of the above attributes. So why don’t we just find those people and vote for them? Why? Because the mayor’s job is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Let’s take Don Smith, a hypothetical qualified candidate who lives in WH. Don has a master’s degree and is a vice-president at a large manufacturing company in the state and he has served on the City Council for many years so he comes with a great number of those attributes above. Don, we want you to run for mayor, you are very likeable and by far the most qualified. Here are the terms: you need to quit your current job with great health benefits, a solid 401k, yearly bonus and three weeks’ vacation. But don’t worry Don, our mayor is budgeted to make $89,000 next year so we are only asking you to take a pay cut of about $60,000, no bonus and no cost of living increase for the foreseeable future, I am sure you understand. We are sure the people will love you, but no matter what decision you make while in office, 40% of the people with have a problem with it. The regular working hours are 8-5, but you are expected to work a minimum of 12 hours/day during the week….but just think, you only have to work half that on the weekends. One last thing Don, even if you are the savior, 2-years from now you may have fallen out of favor with the politicos that helped you get in. Or, maybe someone more popular decides to run, but hopefully you will survive and advance for another two-year run. If not, I am sure your old company will take you back.
Over the years we have had good mayors and some not-so-good mayors. Many of them have come to the table with some of the attributes listed above, but none have come with all of them. For those areas where any mayor is not an expert, we have to hope they learn quickly on-the-job, while making no major mistakes. Well the CRC reviewed this logic and decided, why should we have to settle for anything less than an expert in all these fields? Hope is not a strategy, so why not bring in someone with a master’s degree who studied how to operate a city under these exact conditions? Oh, and let’s not settle there, let’s make sure the person has at least five years of experience honing their skills in another municipality so when they show up on day-1 they have a plan and a strategy based on real experience, not campaign promises.
Many people have stated…everything sounds great, but how exactly do you plan to pay for this, you know we are almost bankrupt and a city manager will cost about $150,000/year? Yes, we know this and if the proposal is implemented, in its entirety, there are plenty of offsets. First, the mayor moves to part-time, so the salary is expected to go to say $40,000, that is $50,000/year in savings, second, moving to four-year terms means we would save an average of $110,000/election cycle, that is $27,500/year, third, we have proposed that our City Council, with the exception of the mayor, serve without compensation just like the Board of Education, Police Commission, Fire Commissions and many other City Councils in this state and our great nation. That adds $35,000 in savings. Additionally, the move of the Tax Collector to appointed saves $7,500 since we already have a tax manager who is qualified to be tax collector. That is $120,000 of offsets to the anticipated $150,000 in cost. This does not account for any savings from the tremendous amount of flexibility, efficiency and consolidation possibilities the CRC has built into the proposed charter.
The CRC is not looking to diminish this city’s elected bodies, or take away their ability to govern. On the contrary, we are trying to improve their ability to govern by raising the standards and providing them with a new set of tools to work with. In closing, as a taxpayer, I strongly believe we deserve to have a qualified professional running the operations of our city. We all work hard for our money and while taxes are part of everyone’s life, shouldn’t we demand that the people deciding what we pay in taxes are experts at what they do and not just the most popular person willing to run for mayor?