Four Democratic mayoral candidates squared off Wednesday night over fixing New Haven’s underfunded pension system, improving public education, reducing crime, and trying to hold the line on local property taxes.
The candidates appeared in the only live, statewide televised debate in the mayor’s race before the September 10 Democratic primary. Previously, they appeared in more than a dozen other debates in a contentious race that has been marked by charges, countercharges, and personal attacks.
They disagreed Wednesday night over the city’s future and whether it might be headed toward a fiscal cliff. One of the major problems is that two pension funds administered by the city are underfunded by more than $500 million – and the candidates said that more money must be found to boost funding for pensions without overburdening the taxpayers.
City alderman Justin Elicker said that pension reforms must be made, adding that a projection that the pension fund could grow by 8.25 percent is unrealistic at a time of low growth and low interest rates.
“We, as New Haven, are the Detroit of 10 years ago,’’ Elicker said during the one-hour debate at the Long Wharf Theatre. “We need to change the benefit package’’ from a traditional pension plan to a 401 (k) plan that is more common in the private sector.
But state Sen. Toni Harp, the widely acknowledged frontrunner who received the most votes at the Democratic Party convention, said the city is prepared to rebound fiscally.
“I’ve heard from many of my opponents that we are Detroit, that our glass is half empty,’’ Harp said. “Well, I believe that our glass is half full. … I believe that we can do it. We are not Detroit. Together, we can move this city forward.’’
Harp, who has been endorsed by the police union, acknowledged that police officers are permitted to retire at a relatively young age, but she added that they “have really high blood pressure’’ and need stabilized pensions.
Henry Fernandez, a Yale Law School graduate who served previously as the ity’s economic development director, said the unfunded liabilities of the pensions are a serious problem.
“This is a ticking time bomb in the city’s budget,’’ Fernandez said. “It threatens taxpayers. … Right now, it’s possible for people to retire in their mid-40s and get a full pension from the city.’’
City police officers are currently permitted to retire after 20 years of service, but newly hired officers will now need to serve 25 years before they can retire with a pension. Fernandez recently unveiled a plan in which the state would contribute about $20 million in additional dollars to New Haven, and the city would agree to pour that money into the pension plans. At the same time, city workers would then agree to contribute more to their pensions.
Kermit Carolina, the principal of Hillhouse High School, agreed that pension costs have spiraled too high.
“Let’s be honest. We have been fiscally irresponsible,’’ Carolina said. “We’ve allowed our unions to inflate their pensions. … They sit on beaches, while we sit here and struggle in the city.’’
Carolina said that one way to improve the city’s fiscal outlook is to start a commuter home buyer program that would encourage public employees to live in the city – a program that has already been started by Yale University for its workers.
“We have revenue leaving the city on a daily basis,’’ said Carolina, noting that city workers spend money in the suburbs where they live.
The candidates are seeking to succeed Democrat John DeStefano, who has held the mayor’s chair for the past 20 years before deciding not to seek reelection this year.