April 19, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer
Mayor Eddie A. Perez
presented a budget plan Monday with features that he hopes
will improve the city's bond rating and police response time
and put more police on the streets - all to be paid for with
a tax increase.
The $463.7 million proposed budget represents a 3 percent increase
over the current $449 million budget.
If the city council approves the proposal as is, the tax rate
would jump 4.5 mills, an 8 percent increase, to 60.82 mills.
The rise is due, in part, to a 1.24 percent dip in the grand
list, the city's list of taxable property.
The spending plan also transfers the responsibility for paying
for health care and other employee benefits to the school district
and to the Hartford Public Library for employees in those budgets.
Dismayed school administrators warned that the costs, which
are not included in the superintendent's budget, could lead to
a shorter school year and staff reductions.
"It's not an easy budget," Perez said. "No
mayor wants to increase taxes. It's necessary to stay competitive
and to improve the quality of life."
In his note to council members,
Perez reminded them that a number of buildings that were formerly
on the city tax roll were purchased by the state and other
nonprofit groups for use as schools or other purposes. "Exempt property comprises 43 percent of
the real property grand list," he wrote.
Major initiatives in Perez's plan include a $180 million, 10-year
capital improvement program with a $64.2 million budget for the
first year. Of that, $53 million would be used on school construction.
Other initiatives earmark $500,000 to replace city vehicles
and $2.2 million to create a 311 phone line where residents could
report potholes and make other complaints. A portion of the cost
would be covered by multiyear leases and financing, said city
Finance Director Thomas Morrison.
Perez approved a police recruit class of 25. Police Chief Patrick
J. Harnett had initially asked for 40 to 50 more officers, then
dropped his request to 20 to start in January when he realized
he wouldn't get it. Perez added five more officers and gave them
a July start for training, said Budget Director Lori Wachtelhausen.
But the mayor turned down Fire Chief Charles A. Teale Sr.'s
request for a class of 41 firefighters, Wachtelhausen said, and
eliminated 38 positions from the fire department that were vacant
due to attrition.
Teale said he asked for the
extra firefighters "to keep
overtime at a minimum." Perez gave him an extra $860,000
for overtime, Wachtelhausen said.
The fire department is the first responder to emergency medical
calls and Teale said response time will remain the same because
the department will have the same number of companies next year
as it does now.
Perez prepared his document with an eye toward the city's financial
Five years ago, Hartford's AA bond rating dropped to A; since
then, the city has had to pay more to finance school and other
construction through the sale of bonds.
"We were in a period of [economic] decline," Morrison
said. Also, the city was using its unexpended fund balance for
operating costs, said city Treasurer Kathleen Palm.
Wall Street likes to see a balance equal to 8 percent to 10
percent of the city's general budget, Palm said.
"We were using the fund
balance to balance the budget. It was spent down to 2 percent
of the general budget."
The proposed budget increases that fund balance to 7.5 percent
of the general budget. While it's a step in the right direction,
Morrison said, Wall Street firms will still want to see another
"And they'd like to see
Adriaen's Landing and the hotels open and doing well. They're
concerned about how much we're relying on state funding for
the board of education and they're concerned about having a
population with limited funds."
Finally, Perez's budget calls for hiring more building inspectors,
mainly because of the volume of school construction, and for
more people to work in the emergency dispatch center to increase
police response times.
The school budget represents the largest share of the city's
budget. The school board is seeking a 4.2 percent increase, but
Perez is offering a 2 percent increase for the general budget
and a 2 percent increase in fringe benefits. It is not yet clear
whether the state will increase funding.
"This sends a message to the board of education and the
library to control fringe benefits," Perez said.
School leaders say the mayor's offer is not enough and that
assuming responsibility for benefits could necessitate drastic
Currently the school year is two days over the legal requirement
of 180 days. Those extra days could be eliminated, said Sandy
Cruz-Serrano, senior adviser to the superintendent.
And professional development offered to teachers on Thursday
afternoons could be cut back or eliminated, to squeeze in more
time for student instruction while trimming days from the school
"We can't just run out of money," Cruz-Serrano
Superintendent of Schools
Robert Henry won't consider closing schools "because it's too disruptive. It destabilizes the
district," Cruz-Serrano said.
Cruz-Serrano said she believes
health care costs could rise about 14 percent, a $5 million
to $6 million increase. "So
a 2 percent increase is no increase at all," she said.
City officials had mentioned
transferring responsibility for the health care and other benefits
a few months ago, Cruz-Serrano said. "But we thought it was going to be phased in over
the year or in a year," she said. "We did not expect
to take this on. We're not prepared to take on this huge endeavor."
School board Chairman Robert E. Long said the timing is bad
with the city's decision coming after the school board approved
a budget proposal.
A public hearing on the city budget is scheduled for April 27
at 6 p.m. at Bulkeley High School.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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