In the last few years, Hartford has entered each budget season with a deficit projected in the tens of millions of dollars, yet somehow managed to patch something together and call it a balanced budget. Two years ago the projected deficit was $33 million. Last year if was $50 million.
That hole didn't quite get closed — there is a $9.4 million shortfall for the current fiscal year — and the projected deficit for next year is estimated at $70 million. This doesn't count the possible reductions in car-tax revenue and state property payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposed budget.
How long can the city keep doing this? How many rabbits are left in the hat?
The big drivers of the deficit, says Mayor Pedro Segarra, are rising health care and pension costs, costs that have to be addressed.
But as a first step, we urge Mr. Segarra to pluck the low-hanging fruit. Two examples.
Registrars of voters
Due to a quirk in state law, Hartford has three registrars of voters, while every other municipality in the state has two. State law says the registrar candidates with the highest and second highest number of votes win the posts. But if a major-party candidate is not among the top two, that candidate is also named a registrar.
In 2008, a Working Families Party candidate, Urania Petit, outpolled Republican Sal Bramante. Under the law, they were both named registrars, along with Democrat Olga Iris Vazquez. With salary, staff and benefits, each registrar costs the city about $250,000 a year. This is an idiotic waste of money. The city doesn't need three registrars. Since 2008, this situation has cost the city $1 million or more.
Instead of correcting the problem, now in its fifth year, Hartford has just continued to pay all three registrars. The city's charter revision commission is proposing a promising solution: It will recommend that nonpartisan professional registrars be appointed and made part of the town clerk's office.
This is a positive step, except it doesn't solve the problem. According to the secretary of the state's office, state law must be changed to permit municipalities to structure the registrar's office by charter. (This is equally idiotic.) There is at present no bill before the General Assembly.
How long will this take?
The city gives cars to a number of department heads and other employees that they can take home. This was a common perk years ago, but many cities across the country have canceled it to save money. Hartford should follow suit.
Why is it essential that the mayor's chief of staff, Jared Kupiec, have a city car? He makes a six-figure income. He can drive his own car to work, and so can quite a few others who are enjoying this perk. While some city employees need to drive as part of the job — building inspectors, for example — a lot of take-home cars sit in parking lots all day. Wouldn't it make more sense to pay mileage for city business, or even use a service such as Zipcar? Or at least study the question?
Mr. Segarra is keenly aware of the need to economize. As he said in his "state of the city" address earlier this week, the city has significantly improved the health of internal accounts such as workers compensation, medical claims and post-employment benefits, and saved millions in the process. He has a group working on health care costs and agrees that more work must be done on pensions, such as capping them so that no one retires at more than they made on the job.
Picking low-hanging fruit such as registrars and take-home cars won't solve the budget problems. But it will help, and it will send the right message to taxpayers — that the city is not spending any money that it doesn't have to.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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