Mayor Eddie A. Perez unveiled what he called his "toughest budget ever" Monday, a $547.6 million, "bare minimum budget" that keeps spending flat and significantly raises property taxes.
Now, a fractured city council with no consistent majority begins its deliberations over the proposal.
Perez has set the stage.
"Unfortunately ... there will be more pain and more personal sacrifice," Perez said in his budget message — pain that will worsen, he said, if the city council seeks a budget without a tax increase.
"We need to work together to get a budget that is fair, or we could destroy the very same people we're supposed to be protecting," said Democratic Councilman Pedro Segarra, the council's budget chairman.
But Perez's proposed tax hike is "way over what I had anticipated," Segarra said. Given the the economy, Perez's proposed tax increase "could be devastating," Segarra said.Perez's budget calls for a tax rate of 77.23 mills, or $77.23 for each $1,000 of assessed property value — an increase of 8.89 mills, or 13 percent. But because of caveats in the city's tax structure, the city would actually take in $259.2 million in property taxes — an 8.3 percent increase over last year, officials said.
Perez says the average Hartford homeowner would see a $378, or 13 percent property tax increase.
Perez has been warning for some time that the budget for the fiscal year ending in June 2010 would be tough. He previously projected a $40 million deficit for 2010, but now says he'll need to take $8.8 million from the city's savings account to make the numbers work.
The mayor said he has had little success in convincing the city's labor unions to agree to concessions.
Still, Perez has drawn his line in the sand clearly with his pledge to maintain the city's core services. That means that although the city and the schools have eliminated 190 positions over the past six months, he has no plans to lay off more city staff. (The school board, though, projects it will eliminate 225 positions.)
But it is hard to hold the line without raising taxes. There's less money coming into the city — from everything from permits to investment income, Perez said.
Perez presented two new initiatives — $1.5 million for foreclosure prevention, and $1.7 million to create and preserve Hartford arts jobs. His budget does not pay for a new police class, instead relying on the federal stimulus funds.
Democratic council President Calixto Torres, considered a Perez ally, says that every municipality is facing a difficult situation.
"In order to not have any tax increases, that's going to translate into cutting back services," Torres said. "Services rely on manpower, and that means the only way you can really get substantive savings is through cutbacks in services. Which translates into additional layoffs."
Efforts to reach Larry Deutsch, the council's minority leader from the Working Families Party, were unsuccessful, as were efforts to reach Republican Veronica Airey-Wilson.
Democratic Councilman Matt Ritter, who has also been at odds occasionally with the Perez administration, said that the luxury of being the chief executive officer is to get to make the first move.
Perez, he said, began with a "a little bit of a high mill increase and then [leaves it to] the council to figure it out," Ritter said. "You want to have a lower mill rate? You figure it out. You want more services? You raise taxes. The ball is really in our court."
The council begins its deliberations on the budget next week with a public hearing on the budget April 28. It must act on the budget no later than May 31.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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