The state Municipal Accountability Review Board took greater control of West Haven’s finances Tuesday following Gov. Ned Lamont’s approval of its recommendations based on an audit suggesting the town had misspent most of its COVID relief funding.
The expected step came 30 days after the board voted to recommend elevating West Haven to Tier IV, its highest municipal oversight status based on a damaging audit of the city’s accounting policies that concluded 80% of the city’s federal relief spending should have been prohibited.
The final decision fell to the governor following a month-long public comment period. Lamont announced his decision in a press release as the board began its Tuesday meeting.
“As detailed in the MARB report, 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 that the residents of the town and the state deserve,” Lamont said.
“This decision is a direct result of the fiscal mismanagement in the city that has gone on for too long. 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,” he said.
Although the MARB has maintained some oversight of West Haven’s finances, Tier IV status gives the state panel final approval of the city’s operating budget.
During its meeting the board acknowledged Lamont’s approval of its Tier IV plan then moved to a closed-door session, which Office of Policy and Management Secretary Jeffrey Beckham said was to review a handful of draft documents the panel would finalize in order to “carry out our work as a board and to obtain resources to carry out this enhanced oversight as we go forward.”
The audit, conducted by the independent firm CohnReznick, came on the heels of charges against Michael DiMassa, a former Democratic state representative and West Haven municipal employee. DiMassa resigned from both positions after federal investigators charged him with embezzling more than $630,000.
West Haven officials have opposed efforts by the board to take further control of the town’s finances. In a letter to Lamont last week, Mayor Nancy Rossi touted the city’s financial progress and said DiMassa’s arrest had tarnished its gains.
“If not for the unfortunate alleged illegal activities of this State Representative, West Haven would be celebrating historic success,” Rossi wrote, according to a city press release.
Rossi suggested that many of the problems detailed in the audit could have been easily fixed, but said the city would not impede the MARB’s efforts to assume more control.
“I will guarantee full cooperation from the City of West Haven as we move forward with MARB under TIER 4 to continue to improve and strengthen the City’s financial operations,” Rossi wrote.
During the meeting, Assistant State Treasurer Christine Shaw, a member of the MARB, said the panel hoped to work collaboratively with the city’s officials. She said some of the public feedback seemed to suggest the board was working against the town.
“As if MARB was at interests adverse to that of the city and the city officials. We’re not. We are very mindful of the impact on the residents of the city and we will do whatever we can to ensure the public’s confidence and faith in its municipality is restored,” Shaw said.