April 25, 2007
By DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writer
Members of the public had a chance to speak their minds Tuesday about Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez's recommended 2007-08 budget - a $517.88 million proposal that represents an increase of $20.98 million, or 4.22 percent, over current spending.
The night's discourse was dominated by funding for the city's libraries, rising fear of crime, an overworked and understaffed public works department and dismay at the high taxes paid by small businesses. But the hearing was not without political intrigue.
Two mayoral candidates, state Rep. Art Feltman and former Deputy Mayor I. Charles Mathews, spoke at the hearing as Perez, flanked by members of the city council and board of education, sat on stage and listened.
But when Feltman took the microphone to ask questions about figures in the budget - for example, why is the budget's assumed tax collection rate higher than in recent memory? - he was cut short by Perez, who said the hearing was for testimony, not dialogue.
Feltman quickly responded, "I can assure you, Mr. Mayor, when the roles are reversed, people will have their questions answered."
Of the nearly 100 members of the public who attended, many spoke in favor of giving the city's libraries more money. Some said the current budget leaves the libraries with a $500,000 shortfall and could mean shutting all the branches on Saturdays.
Owners of small businesses expressed concern about what, on average, could be a 62 percent increase in their property taxes because of state legislation enacted last year that limited the impact of a recent revaluation of city property.
The legislation, while helping homeowners and large apartment buildings dodge the crushing impact of higher taxes, shifted that burden to many smaller businesses.
"You have to do something to help us," said John Tornatore, owner of Gordon Bonetti Florist on Franklin Avenue. He said his business, which has been in Hartford since 1896, would either have to add a $2 charge to all its orders or move out of the city.
"The residents of this city, if they want more money for the library, or more services, everyone should have to pay, not just small businesses," he said.
After everyone had voiced their concerns, Mathews took the microphone and said he believed there was enough room in the budget to address everyone's concerns.
"It just means thinking outside of the box," he said.
The mayor's proposed budget - which includes putting more police officers on the streets, re-establishing a mounted police unit and dedicating millions to programs for city youth - would raise the average annual residential tax bill by $193, according to the city assessor's office.
The bulk of the spending increase in Perez's budget can be traced to labor contracts with municipal unions, health coverage, debt service and anticipated legal settlements. Combined, they account for nearly $13.4 million, or 64 percent, of the hike.
The mayor's proposal holds the city's portion for schools at $261 million, the same as last year, but assumes the state will deliver nearly $10 million for Hartford in the Education Cost Sharing Grant.
The city council will be holding hearings each evening next week to review every department's portion of the budget, making any amendments and adopting it by the end of May.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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