Four candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New Haven squared off in a debate Wednesday night.
Former Hillhouse High School principal Kermit Carolina, former New Haven economic administrator Henry Fernandez, State Sen. Toni Harp and Alderman Justin Elicker all want to succeed current mayor John DeStefano.
DeStefano decided not to run again after serving 20 years as New Haven's mayor.
The candidates gathered at the Long Wharf Theater at 7 p.m. for the hour-long debate. They focused on several key issues and offered up their plans for how to address them.
Front and center was the the question of how to stimulate the economy and balance the city budget without overloading taxpayers.
State Sen. Harp said one of the biggest problems was the mismanagement of funding from the state. Harp said the city has been irresponsible with state funding and needs to be more careful with how and where that money is allocated. Harp also advocated for consolidating operations to make it easier to do business in the city.
Fernandez called city employee pensions "a ticking time bomb" that poses a threat to taxpayers as bond ratings continue to lower. Fernandez said the city needs to put together a comprehensive plant to fully fund pensions but "be realistic" about making the necessary changes. He suggested pushing back the retirement age for city employees.
Elicker agreed on the need to renegotiate pension plans. He said he plans to fully fund existing pensions while reducing city-issued debt. Elicker said the city cannot afford to cut taxes in the face of mounting debt, but can stimulate economic development by providing incentives for New Haven employees to live in the city and spend money there.
"We as New Haven are the Detroit of 10 years ago," Elicker said.
Carolina also advocated for bringing city employees back into the city, and suggested a commuter/homebuyer program as one way of making that happen. He also vowed to expand the city's tax base by expanding the list of large corporations in the city that are required to pay more. He said it's also important to streamline services for residents and merge them wherever possible in order to be more efficient with city spending.
Carolina said that no matter what, he will continue to turn away special-interest money from unions, big donors and "insiders," and said he "refuses to be beholden" to anyone but New Haven residents.
Education was also a hot topic, with all four candidates agreeing that more needs to be done to facilitate the learning process for bilingual students and make the school more accessible to those parents.
Candidates also presented their plans to reduce violent crime in the city.
Harp said she would work to identify the small percentage of city residents reponsible for the violence and hold them accountable.
Fernandez emphasized the importance of providing after-school and summer programs for the city's youth to keep them engaged and out of trouble.
Elicker promised to bring the police department back to a community policing model to encourage relationships between officers and residents. He also spoke to the importance of youth programming.
Carolina said ex-convicts released from prison are causing the biggest problem, and that the city needs to do more to support them and provide opportunity for them as they transition back into the community.
The Democratic primary for mayor in New Haven is Sept. 10.
If you would like to watch the debate in person, tickets are available for free at the Long Wharf Theater box office beginning at 10 a.m. They will be handed out on a first come, first served basis. Doors will open at 6 p.m. and those attending must be in their seats by 6:45 p.m.