With more than 100 in attendance, Hartford residents voiced their concerns Tuesday about Mayor Eddie A. Perez's proposed $552 million budget, a $26.3 million increase over current spending.
While speaking on a wide range of issues in the Bulkeley High School auditorium, many Hartford residents stood in front of Perez and the city council to say that the proposed budget could hurt some of the city's most vulnerable residents — low income families, children and the illiterate.
Much of the focus was on what the public sees as problems with the city's school budget, which makes up $284 million of the mayor's plan, and will result in staffing cuts.
As one resident said, "You need to go back into that budget book and find some more money."
Dozens of employees, parents and union members from the city's schools protested at the front doors of Bulkeley High School. Inside, some said at the hearing that the mayor's and Superintendent Steven Adamowski's spending plan was difficult to understand and left large questions about what exact positions would be eliminated.
Others complained that parents did not know whether any of the positions would be taken from their children's schools.
And frustrated members of the public said it was disingenuous to claim that cutting school positions that directly serve children — such as dental hygienists, nurse practitioners and janitors — is a good idea, while simultaneously hiring new, highly paid media relations staff.
Cathy Carpino, of the Hartford Federation of Teachers, was angry.
"At the same time as cutting these positions, the district has hired, at substantial salaries, three — I repeat, three — former Hartford Courant employees in communications," Carpino said. "Since when has the Hartford Board of Education become a source of employment for former Hartford Courant staff? The Hartford Courant has never been a friend to education in this city."
Carpino added as new employees are coming in, one communications staffer who will lose his job has worked for the schools for 20 years.
Nancy Benben, now the district's interim chief communications officer, is a former vice president of marketing and corporate affairs at The Courant; David Medina, a Courant editorial writer, is leaving the paper on May 9 to become director of external affairs for Hartford's public schools; and Chelsea M. Adams, interim communications assistant for Hartford schools, was a marketing coordinator at the paper.
Benben said Carpino's statement missed the point and wasn't entirely accurate. Benben said the communications office has lost two positions overall. And while Benben would not disclose her salary, or the salary of her new staff, she said her spending is lower than last year.
"You want to find out how much I make, then dig it out," Benben said. "But my overall budget, which includes salaries and benefits, has shrunk from last year."
Benben also said a more detailed version of the school budget would be released soon and will show that money is being shifted toward the classroom and away from the administration.
Many residents also spoke in favor of the city's libraries, which have had their budget cut by about $500,000 from current spending, and in favor of reinstating money for the Greater Hartford Literacy Council, which is losing approximately $250,000 in city and school support and will be forced to close.
Geraldine Sullivan, president of the library's board, said such a loss to the library would hurt.
"If the budget is adopted as recommended, we will be forced to make cuts and reduce hours," she said. "Please don't take that as a threat. It is just the reality."
Perez's budget represents a 9.9 percent tax-levy increase, meaning the average tax bills will be going up. The proposed spending plan would raise the average annual residential tax bill for a single-family home by $327, according to the city assessor's office. The plan represents a tax increase of 6.32 mills, and if approved would bring the city's tax rate to 69.71 mills. One mill equals $1 in property taxes per $1,000 of assessed valuation.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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