In 2008, facing major deficits and layoffs, the members of the Hartford city council detected an otherwise imperceptible need to give themselves a big raise.
The council voted to put a nearly 80 percent salary increase for themselves from $15,000 a year to $26,650 on the November ballot. It passed, with 51 percent of the vote, quite possibly aided by a confusingly worded ballot question: "Shall there be an ordinance amending the annual salary of Members of the Court of Common Council to ($26,650) effective January 1, 2012?"
Note that the word "raise" does not appear. Do you supposed some residents voted "yes" thinking this was some kind of procedural housekeeping question, not a big raise for the council?
In any event, some council members have now proposed putting a question on this fall's ballot to rescind the raises. They should do that, and in plain English.
Hartford's council is already the highest paid in the state. These are supposed to be part-time jobs, especially after the change to the strong mayor system. As councilman Kenneth Kennedy said in opposing the raise, council work is a public service. It is a privilege and involves some sacrifice.
With the city facing a projected $9.8 million budget deficit this year and a $17.8 million gap in 2011-12, there must be sacrifice aplenty.
The big items, as with governments at all levels, are health care and pensions. Reducing costs in these areas is essential, and should be the major focus. The majority of non-education city workers are in public safety; the city must find some savings in these areas. Thus the recent hiring of two deputy fire chiefs, one from outside the department, at annual salaries of $122,000 may have been untimely.
The city is in contract negotiations with the police union, and presumably is pushing to bring what historically have been lavish pension benefits down to a level the city can afford.
But a tight fiscal ship must have all leaks caulked. Although pension and benefits are the big-ticket items, there are smaller expenses, such as the council raises, that stick in the craw of taxpayers and should be addressed. Here are three:
Take-home cars. A number of high-ranking city workers two dozen or more; the city has been unable to produce the actual number for the past week have city cars they can take home at night. Does the city owe well-paid managers a ride to work? Wouldn't a pool of city cars, that officials could sign out if needed when they got to work, save money? How about a downtown Zipcar service, that residents and business people as well as city employees, could use? Ditto for state cars.
Contribution fund. The city council has a $300,000 fund from which it can make contributions to civic and cultural organizations. In good times, perhaps. Now, no. This line item must be lined out.
Needless jobs. Though many have been eliminated by layoffs and early retirements, there are still a few politically scented jobs sprinkled through the workforce that the city can live without. For example, former State Rep. Evelyn Mantilla, an ally of former Mayor Eddie Perez, serves as the communications manager for the city Department of Health and Human Services, at $71,000 a year, according to city records. The department doesn't have much need for a media spokesperson, and our sense is that other tasks could be parceled out.
Mayor Pedro Segarra has vowed to look under all the rocks and consider such steps as department consolidations. The budget process, a series of collaborative, workshop-style sessions with the council and residents, began Thursday with the innovative idea of moving city employees to the state's prescription drug plan, which could save $1.8 million in the next fiscal year. That's a good first step.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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