An Interview with Toni Harp, Mayor of New Haven, CT
The Politic: How satisfied have you been with the first seven months of your term as Mayor of New Haven?
I’m very satisfied. I think we have gotten off to a really good start. The first thing that we were able to do was to tear down the fence between Hamden and New Haven that artificially separated the two communities. It was something that hasn’t been done for 50 years, so I feel really good about that. We have also done a number of initiatives having to do with supporting our disengaged youth that have never been done before. We’re creating the Youth Stat program—which will probably be one of the first in the United States of America—where we create a setting in which all of the people who interface with families that have a disengaged young person can come together and do joint planning on behalf of the child, as well as the family. As a part of that, we have a community mentoring program and we’ve done a community canvas, going door to door and reaching out to those parents. If you have a disengaged youth in your home, that’s probably something for which you need support. We’ve also been able to get a number of community agencies to work with nearly 450 young people this summer so they can have access to jobs and programs that they choose and that they’re interested in. We’re very excited about seeing the outcome of this new program.
The Politic: What impact can a mayor have that no other elected official can?
I’ve always been in the legislative branch, where you can set policy, but you don’t have direct hands-on implementation or control over the resources or even the policy that you set. The mayor can take those resources and that policy and actually implement them and make sure that they work in the community. I think that’s what makes it different than being in the legislative branch. The governor to some extent has the same ability to do that at the statewide level.
The Politic: What would you identify as the biggest contrast between you and former Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. in how you have run the city?
I think of myself more as a collaborative leader. I really think that Mr. DeStefano was more talk-down, but I really like to bring people to the table, develop partnerships, and that sort of thing. An example would be what we did with the police this summer. We have 10 police districts and we were able to set aside overtime dollars for the summer that we gave to the sergeants or lieutenants in charge of those districts to deploy officers in a way that they thought would be most effective for the neighborhood. I think that was something that is slightly different. The other thing that you’ll see in the budget that was my proposal is that we gave dollars to our district management team for them to distribute in their communities for more hardware and low-cost items that they might need.
Giving people closer to problems and in the neighborhoods resources to begin to address some of their own issues is something that’s never been done. I think another difference is having strong neighborhood-based youth programming, which is vitally important to giving our young people positive and productive things to do in our community. Those have been under-supported in the DeStefano administration. My administration is actually trying to rebuild those things and make sure those resources are available to people in our community.
The Politic: What do you envision as the future of town-gown relations and what needs to be done to get there?
I think that we already have a very good relationship. Decades ago, there were strained relationships between the City of New Haven and its residents and Yale University, but that has changed over the past couple of decades. I see Yale as a really important partner. They are an institution in our community that isn’t going anywhere, one that certainly raises our status as a community. And, it’s in their interest to ensure that the problems we have in our community are seen as mutual problems that we work on together. For example, we do a lot of mutual work with our police department, we do a lot of economic development work together, and there are many other things that we do together and will continue to do together.
Of course, there is what I would consider to be a positive tension because, certainly, their goals are very different than many of the goals of the city. But, they all coalesce in the value that would have New Haven strong and would have Yale strong, so we work on that together.
I think what would make our relationship even stronger is if the value of the payment in lieu of taxes [PILOT] for the college and hospital was better funded by the state. We will continue to work on that as a city and to lobby for that, and are hoping that we will be joined by the university. In New Haven, most of our services are paid for by property tax. The fact that they [Yale] don’t pay property tax for all of their educational buildings is a problem. The state offsets that through PILOT, but the value of that has gone down in years. So what we need to do together is make sure the state continues to fund it, one, but adequately fund it, two. That’s something that we can work on together.
The Politic: How do you plan to address the rising levels of gun crime in recent months?
We’ve already made a lot of progress on gun crime. One policy partnership we had with faculty at the Yale Law School helped us develop a project that they’ve operated in Chicago and Providence, called Project Longevity. What it does is identify members of gangs most likely to foment violence in our community, calls them in, and tells them that we know who they are and that if there’s more gun violence, we’re coming after them and all the members of their gang. That has been relatively successful over the past year.
We’re going into the second year of the new iteration, where we have sent out letters not just to individuals, but to their families. These let them know that there have been warrants for arrest for their family members, that we know they’ve had problems in the past, and that we have had that discussion with the individual member of the family. [The letters] reach out to [en]sure that they don’t continue to violate the law and tell them that if they do, we will come after them. The program has been very successful. We haven’t had a shooting death in three weeks. I need to knock on wood, but that is really important for the city. It lets me know that Project Longevity is working, Youth Stat is working, and our mentoring is working. We honestly believe that we are making progress.
We are one of the few cities in that state that has a ShotSpotter system. Whenever a gun is shot, it can pinpoint where it’s being shot. We have reduced the number of guns fired and certainly [have also reduced] the number of shooting deaths and shooting victims.
The Politic: What was your reaction to the contention over the proposed budget this year?
I did 20 years in the General Assembly. Ten of those years, I was the Senate Chair of Appropriations, so I really understand, perhaps more than anyone else, why it’s important for the legislative branch—whether it’s at the state, federal, or local level—to have its say. There were some things that I wanted that I would have loved to have gotten in the budget. But I really believe that the budget should reflect the people and the people’s branch is the legislative branch. In spite of the fact that I didn’t get every single thing that I wanted, I got most of what I wanted, and I think that the process worked.
The Politic: What in particular would you put back into the budget if you could?
I really think it’s important—since we can’t raise enough property tax to provide the services—that we have a very robust way of soliciting outside funding. They gave me one position and some dollars to contract for grant writers. I would have preferred to have at least another position or two, and I didn’t get that. But we do have something we’re working with, and we’re going to try to make it work.
The Politic: What aspect of your role as mayor did you least expect?
I thought that it would be a job where I would spend a lot of time at it, but I didn’t realize that I would be busy with mayoral duties every single day of the week, from sun-up until almost midnight every night. But I love the job. It was unexpected, but I certainly adjusted to it.
The Politic: You must have a lot on your mind, but what issue would you say is at the very forefront right now?
What I worry the most about are two things that are interconnected. I worry about the fact that we are the job center for the region and yet we have a high unemployment rate for New Haven residents. I worry about that because if people can’t work, it impacts the way they deal with each other and the city. Finding jobs for New Haven residents is really important, but it’s also connected to having a strong school system that provides the kind of educational support that the people of New Haven need in order to participate in a knowledge-based economy. We still have a very high achievement gap in our town. Our adult education program has to do high school all over again, so it really can’t provide the kind of support for adult learning that enhances adult education. I think those two things are intertwined and are the kinds of things we’ve got to solve to take that next step and become the kind of city that we all know we can be.
The Politic: What is your vision for New Haven in 2020?
My vision is that New Haven is a city where all people are healthy; live in clean, healthy communities; treat each other as good neighbors no matter their origin or status; and…really feel like they’re not just a part of their neighborhood but a part of one city that is in their corner.