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City of West Haven placed under strictest level of state control

The Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB) officially placed the City of West Haven under Connecticut’s strictest oversight level during a meeting today, following several years of growing frustration for board members tasked with overseeing the city’s fiscal health.

MARB voted to place West Haven under Tier IV oversight following a vote last month and a 30-day public comment period. Gov. Ned Lamont issued a press release approving the Tier IV designation. 

“This decision is the direct result of the fiscal mismanagement in the city that has gone on for too long,” Lamont said. “Taxpayers deserve to have confidence that their money is well spent, and the stringent oversight that a Tier IV designation provides will allow the state to provide the tools necessary to address this situation.”

The move came following an outside audit of the city found West Haven had misspent or lacked documentation for $900,000 in COVID-relief funds, which excluded the alleged theft of more than $600,000 by city employee and former Democratic state Rep. Michael DiMassa and city employee John Bernardo, among others.

But the alleged theft and arrest of city officials by the Federal Bureau of Investigation was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back on what had been a long road for both the city and MARB, which has repeatedly criticized West Haven’s seeming lack of urgency in setting up proper fiscal controls and implementing sound budgeting practices.

Following an executive session, the Board moved forward with the Tier IV status for West Haven.

Board member Jeffrey Beckham of the Office of Policy and Management said, “We are at the beginning of what I expect will be a lengthy process with the city to get it back to where it needs to be, where I know the mayor and her staff want to get it and we’ll do our best to do so in a way that is efficient and productive at all times.”

Board member Christine Shaw of the State Treasurer’s Office said the Board is working in collaboration with the City of West Haven and it is not an adversarial relationship.

“The decision to recommend Tier IV designation, it was a process that led us to this point, and we do believe there is a path forward and collaboration is going to be key to a swift resolution of the issues before us,” Shaw said.

Under the Tier IV status, the Board will have “more significant MARB approval powers in regard to budgets, transfers, contracts, debts and labor contracts,” according to the governor’s press release.

The MARB immediately began discussing West Haven’s 2023 budget, questioning pay raises for the city’s police force and cost of living adjustments for retired police officer pensions.

The City of West Haven was empty-handed when it came to turning in a 5-year plan to the MARB during the meeting today, while both the City of Hartford and the Town of Sprague submitted 5-year plans.

“I have no idea why there is no five year plan,” said Board member Robert White. “There seems to be a kind of deliberate hiding of the ball, not showing how we pay for the police contract.”

White added that it was the responsibility of city officials to craft a balanced budget and not put that responsibility on the MARB and then blame them for potentially raising property tax mill rates. The Board determined they will address these issues at a later meeting.

“There is an obvious lack of fiscal controls in West Haven, and it is necessary for the state to step in and provide the oversight and accountability the residents of the town and state deserve,” Lamont said.

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Marc E. Fitch, Senior Investigative Reporter

Marc E. Fitch

Marc worked as an investigative reporter for Yankee Institute and was a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. He previously worked in the field of mental health is the author of several books and novels, along with numerous freelance reporting jobs and publications. Marc has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Western Connecticut State University.

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