State board recommends near takeover of West Haven city spending
A state oversight board recommended a near takeover of West Haven's city finances on Thursday. The move comes after a former city official was indicted for allegedly stealing more than $636,000, and an audit concluded almost 80% of COVID relief funds were misspent.
The Municipal Accountability Review Board voted to move West Haven to Tier IV status the highest level of state oversight. Tier IV requires MARB to approve city budgets, most contracts and labor agreements.
Board members said the move was a last resort.
"I don't see any other option for us except to go with the Tier IV," said MARB member Sal Luciano, the former president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO union.
West Haven is already under Tier III state oversight.
The city's latest problems began in October, when federal prosecutors charged former state Rep. Mike DiMassa with using his city position to steal federal COVID relief dollars. An arrest warrant alleges DiMassa gambled more than $50,000 of the money at Mohegan Sun Casino.
Following DiMassa's arrest, Gov. Ned Lamont ordered an outside audit. It found multiple instances of lax oversight and said some COVID funds improperly paid for a marching band and even swimming pool supplies.
West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi told MARB members she disagrees with the audit but said the city has made changes.
"We have hired staff -- a procurement director," she said. "We have an admin there. I know there's supposed to be a buyer."
Other city officials acknowledged financial compliance issues but argued Tier IV status would only lead to higher property taxes.
MARB members said they couldn't ignore the audit's stark findings.
"There's an old adage that says, 'Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,'" said Luciano. "We've been many, many times."
West Haven City Council on Monday night approved a "no confidence" vote in Rossi. In spite of that, Rossi said she will not resign. So far, Lamont isn't asking her to step down.
"My feeling is, West Haven probably should be looking at a fresh start, as I said before. But let me reserve judgment," Lamont told reporters on Tuesday.
Ultimately, Lamont will decide on a state takeover -- after a 30-day review period for the public to weigh in.