The chairman of the City Council has decried the way the Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB) does its work, limiting participation by the public and by elected officials in its process to get the city’s finances under control.
During the May 30 meeting of MARB in Hartford, council Chairman Ron Quagliani (D-at-large) said he was advocating for “the people behind the spreadsheets.” The state-appointed commission put the city under its purview in 2017 when a bond issue passed by the council paid off the long-standing deficit. The empaneling of the commission was a surprise to incoming Mayor Nancy Rossi, who learned of it two days after taking the oath of office.
Only two cities are under the scrutiny of the MARB, Hartford and West Haven. The May 30 meeting was scheduled to review the mayor’s rejected budget and impose a tax increase. In the end the panel added a .46 mill increase to the budget as part of the agreement between it and the city in the five-year plan that is to make the city solvent.
Quagliani as chairman of the council has a seat at the table, but he does not have a vote in the matters that come before it regarding the city.
In his remarks, Quagliani said he wanted to impress on the committee that people, not numbers are impacted by the decisions made.
“Our residents have had to bear high taxation and the reduction of services for decades. Allingtown residents have been particularly hit hard with multi-year tax increases and a mid-year supplemental tax increase this past year,” he said. “City services have been reduced across every department. Recently our 911 dispatchers, and fire fighters stepped up and committed to multi-year wage freezes and reduced benefits all while absorbing increased health care costs. The staffing levels for police, fire, public works, and many city departments have significantly less employees today compared to 20 years ago.”
He told the panel that public input is important, and that he attempts to give as much latitude as he can when the City Council meets.
“Some question why I don’t restrict public comment at our council meetings as it can sometimes last for hours. My answer is simple: The people are why we are here, we were elected by the people to do the people’s business…..the people have the absolute right to address their elected officials and be heard about issues that affect them. The people should and must be part of the process,” he said.
That brought Quagliani to the point of his comments. He asked the rhetorical question, if the people are to be part of the process, shouldn’t their elected officials have a voice with MARB?
“We, the elected West Haven City Council and the mayor, are the community’s representatives and I’d argue that the public and the City Council should be able to participate in important decisions that you, the MARB, are making which impact our community yet no one on the MARB board lives in our community, he said. “The current MARB process does not include City Council participation or public participation. Ideas, suggestions, or concerns can only be offered by traveling to MARB meetings in Hartford where you are limited to a two-minute statement prior to the MARB meeting. This is not how the democratic process should work.”
He asked how the panel can do the process completely, leaving out the people paying the bills?
“I heard at the last MARB sub-committee meeting, when the discussion of increasing the mill rate took place, that some comments from board members that a tax increase can reduce our city’s ability to compete – which is true, or that it can stifle economic development – which is also true, and one member even made the comment that ‘no one likes to pay more in taxes.’ I want you to understand that for many of our residents ‘like to pay’ implies they have an option – but many do not. The faces behind these numbers have told us that loud and clear.
He told of an Allingtown resident, who has owned her home for over 50 years will have to make a choice whether to pay the taxes or pay for her medication, another resident in his 70s is now having to try and find part-time work to make ends meet. Many others have addressed us, some in tears, imploring us to please find another way.
“West Haven is at a cross-roads,” he told the committee. “We are at the point where longtime home-owners that have the ability to pay are asking ‘why should they?’ and selling their homes and leaving our community. I am a lifelong resident who loves West Haven as they do, I don’t want them to go but I can’t blame them. Let’s give them a reason to stay, let’s take our foot off the gas, just a bit. Many of those left can’t leave and are making a choice which bill goes unpaid or what other cutbacks can be made.
Financial stability only comes with a vibrant community,” he said.
Quagliani said the work of the panel and the elected officials are trying to reverse more than a quarter-century of decision-making.
“We are being tasked with addressing 25 years of financial decisions in a very short time,” he said. “Our five-year financial plan is a framework that allows us to achieve a positive financial outcome and positions us for stability. As long as the outcomes are real and achievable how we get there should be flexible. We know that specific revenues and expenses will change. We are currently outperforming the plan and making progress faster than projected which is why I feel we need to make decisions that will keep our residents here a priority.”
He asked the MARB that elected officials have a real – voting – voice at the panel’s deliberations.
“These important decisions that affect our community should also be deliberated in a public forum by our body made up of West Haven residents who answer directly to the people of West Haven,” he said.