December 18, 2018

State's next budget director brings straight talk and solutions

Photo | City of Hartford
Photo | City of Hartford
Melissa McCaw.

Melissa McCaw handles pressure well.

Help Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin chart a plan to keep the capital city out of bankruptcy? Check.

Accept a new role as state budget director? Check.

Get up early and make dinner — and chocolate chip cookies — for her family, in time to leave for work by 6:30 a.m.? Check.

Help Gov.-elect Ned Lamont craft a solution to Connecticut's long-term fiscal crisis, a problem developed over seven decades? Get back to her on that one.

Understanding what's at stake

For McCaw, who brings 17 years of fiscal policy experience to her new post, each challenge is approached with equal parts focus, precision, and a deep appreciation for the services and families behind the budget numbers, according to those who know her well.

"I trusted Melissa implicitly and that trust was well-placed," said Walter Harrison , former president of the University of Hartford and McCaw's boss from mid-2009 through 2016. "Some budget people can be bean-counters. Melissa understood how the university budget was put together, what each particular part of it was, and what was at stake."

At times McCaw recommended tough spending cuts, but also additions to programs that delivered big returns on investment. "When she had to be, she could be tough, but in a very pleasant way."

"She has a powerful command of the substance of her craft, but she also has an ease and a quiet confidence that makes her both effective and a pleasure to work with," said Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who asked McCaw to join the city when he took office — three years ago — as it flirted with insolvency.

"I knew that Melissa would never hesitate to tell me what was going wrong as well as what was going right," he added. "But she's the kind of leader and manager who doesn't just say 'We've got a problem.' She always brings serious, thoughtful solutions."

McCaw, 39, was tapped by Lamont earlier this month to join his administration and become the first-ever African-American secretary of the state Office of Policy and Management.

The OPM secretary typically is referred to as the state's budget director. But the office also takes the lead role in policy, planning and labor relations for the executive branch.

It demands a rare degree of focus and versatility, qualities McCaw's fans say the new director has to spare.

"She is, without a doubt, the hardest-working person I've met in my life," said former Hartford City Councilor Julio Concepcion, who will join the state House of Representatives in January. "The budget in the city is not the easiest to understand and she always knew exactly what she was talking about. She did her homework."

McCaw, 39, has had a strong hand in state and Hartford-area finances for nearly two decades.

A native of Norwalk, McCaw's first job out of college was in 2001 as an OPM budget specialist under then-Secretary Marc S. Ryan.

"I found her to be incredibly bright, dedicated and really professional," said Ryan, who added that McCaw arguably is better prepared to lead present-day OPM than many of her predecessors would be.

McCaw, Lamont, face an unprecedented budget challenge

Why does Ryan say this? Because the needs of the job have changed dramatically.

Though the OPM secretary must function both in the fiscal policy and political worlds, the scales are not as balanced as before. And Ryan, a Republican, said McCaw, a Democrat, is particularly well-suited for this role right now.

Connecticut is entering a 10-to-15-year period during which surging retirement benefit costs — stemming from decades of inadequate savings — are projected to place unprecedented pressure on taxes and all areas of spending.

The state needs a budget director who can clearly communicate sobering news, while offering realistic solutions that offer hope down the road. That's not to say McCaw has no political skill, Ryan added. But, right now, the less partisanship is involved, the better.

After the past eight years of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration, legislators have heard on many occasions that Connecticut is paying the price now for the fiscal sins of governors and legislatures dating back as far as 1939.

But many say it will be up to Lamont to explain just how severe the challenge of paying that bill will be.

"I'm not sure that the sober news will be welcomed, but they will get the sober news because their constituents that elected them are expecting them to make responsible decisions for the state of Connecticut," McCaw said, quickly adding that it won't come without some solution options and some hope.

"You can learn the skills on the job to interact with Democrats and Republicans in the legislature," Ryan said. "But you really gain trust by being knowledgeable and truthful with folks. Melissa would always tell me what she felt. She always knew what you needed to know about any subject matter."

With a bachelor's degree in government from Wesleyan and a master's in public administration from the University of Connecticut, McCaw brought nearly 15 years of experience at OPM and then as the University of Hartford's budget director with her when she joined the Bronin administration in January 2016.

'I'm used to being in the hot seat.'

Though there had been plenty to learn up to that point, McCaw said her work for the city brought experience that will be invaluable in her new job.

"I'm battle-tested, I'm used to being in the hot seat," she said, recalling how Bronin's challenge to her was to solve a problem neither had created, but both had inherited.

The problem went deeper than a series of questionable debt restructuring moves that prior administrations had made, placing a strain on the city's finances.

It went deeper than a state municipal aid system that increasingly failed to reimburse cities for tax receipts they cannot collect on state property, or on private, nonprofit colleges and hospitals.

And it went beyond Connecticut's highest commercial property tax rate, a city with a median income of about $29,000 per year, or the fact that 46 percent of its children live in households with incomes below the federal poverty line.

That was a very interesting process because Hartford, as I was going in, didn't have a significant amount of credibility," McCaw said.

Pausing to smile, a take a breath, McCaw refined her answer with a little more precision.

"Hartford was not necessarily being respected for bringing accurate numbers to the table," she clarified. "A significant part of my role in Hartford was bringing credibility back to the city."

That meant spending days, nights and weekends not only pouring through each line item looking for savings, but discussing Hartford's many challenges not only to city councilors, but state legislators, regional officials, business and community leaders.

"I feel confident when I am sitting across the table because I'm not coming with tricks," she said. "I'm coming with the raw, honest truth."

Not worried about perceptions of Hartford

McCaw nevertheless could face another perception challenge when the Lamont administration begins on Jan. 9.

Could her time in Hartford, leading the city's efforts to avoid bankruptcy, negatively influence the public's perception of her skills?

"What she did in Hartford in those difficult times was impressive," said House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin. "Since she and Mayor Bronin came in, Hartford has only taken steps forward."

"She has an excellent reputation and background," said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven. "People know when the Bronin administration came in it was dealing with a pre-existing problem."

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said "I give all benefit of the doubt to Gov.-elect Lamont," but added that some members of the public may not.

"I think the perception is a concern," he said. "There could be an issue here. We'll have to see how it plays out."

McCaw is too focused on her new task to worry about it.

"I believe that Gov.-elect Lamont respects the broad work I've done in Hartford," she said. "I think my track record will speak for itself. Time will tell."

But that doesn't mean McCaw is all about fiscal planning or delivering sober budgetary news.

"I always looked forward to seeing her," Harrison said, "She's just warm and pleasant. A real person."

"She has a light-hearted side," Concepcion said. "She is very easy to talk to."

Passionate about mentoring women

A native of Norwalk with "strong roots in Middletown," McCaw, 39 has a strong sense of family. She lives in Hartford with her husband, Willis, and their three young children.

Though being the first African-American state budget director grabbed headlines, McCaw also is close to being the first woman to lead OPM.

Former Department of Administration Services Commissioner Brenda Sisco took over the office for the final year of Gov. M. Jodi Rell's administration after Rell nominated OPM Secretary Robert Genuario to become a judge.

With an 11-year-old son, Jordan, and daughters, Grace, 7 and Gabrielle, 4, McCaw said there are other important questions to solve between now and the time she officially begins her new post.

"Who's going to feed the babies, right?" she quipped. "I'm a very dedicated mom."

But McCaw quickly added she frequently gets up early to ensure she can prepare supper in advance for her family before she even leaves for work in the morning.

"I want to be sure that I am a great career woman, but also that they got mom's home cooking and they got my cookies on the weekend and I washed the clothes," she said.

McCaw says she also is passionate about mentoring women and girls, particularly her two daughters.

"I take great pride in being able to model for them a strong woman that can be a significantly participating Mom, not an absentee mom and a strong career woman," she said. "All of my jobs have required a significant time commitment… and so my family understands that."

Her husband Willis is a Department of Correction chaplain, pastor at First Baptist Church in Middletown and a professor of pastoral care at Yale.

A person of faith, McCaw says her beliefs don't color her views toward government policy, but rather provide a source of strength to do the best job possible.

"When I come home and my kids say, 'Mom I saw you on TV,' they feel such immense pride," she said. "They're going to grow up remembering this, and as they get older they're going to really understand what it means."

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