Hartford Council Cuts $4.4 Million From Budget Plan
By DANIEL E. GOREN | Courant Staff Writer
May 20, 2008
The Hartford city council cut $4.4 million from Mayor Eddie A. Perez's $552 million recommended 2008-09 budget Monday, saying that the reduction was needed to blunt the impact of rising tax bills on city residents already struggling under a weakening economy.
The reduction could have been deeper, city officials said, but the city increased its own revenue estimates to make up for an anticipated shortfall of $2.4 in state funding.
The city's budget, scheduled to be adopted by May 31, now stands at just over $547 million after the council's actions. That's an increase over current spending of about 4 percent, or more than $21 million, down from Perez's initial recommendation of $26 million. The new tax rate would be 68.34 mills, an increase of 4.95 mills over the current rate and would cause property taxes to increase by 7.81 percent.
The new budget translates to an average increase of about $200 a year on the tax bill for a single-family home, city officials said.
"This budget, it was excruciatingly difficult," city council President Calixto Torres said. "We started out with a maintenance budget this year. And we wanted to at least maintain the level of service that we have."
The reduction comes largely by eliminating 29 vacant city positions worth $1.5 million — a few from virtually every department — as well as delaying filling 11 other vacant positions, officials said.
No municipal employees would lose their jobs as a result of this budget, a fact applauded by Majority Leader rJo Winch.
"We made some tough cuts, but the primary focus for me was that we didn't have to lay anyone off," she said.
The council found $1.3 million in smaller non-personnel reductions in almost every department, such as travel expenses, copying costs and dues and subscriptions, city officials said. They also reduced the estimated cost of health benefits by $969,000, by not filling a hole in an existing deficit in the account.
The budget still includes extra money for the school system, an increase of 30 new recruits for the police department and continued debt service payments for the construction of schools, libraries and a new public safety complex. The city still anticipates some cost savings over last year by hiring 50 new firefighters, more than offsetting that cost by a projected reduction in overtime for the department.
The budget includes an additional $500,000 for the city's library, keeping the library level with its current spending of $8.4 million. It also restores the city's $60,000 contribution for the Greater Hartford Literacy Council.
The library had said it would be forced to lay off employees without more funding.
The literacy council, which gets part of its funding from the city and the rest from the board of education, said it would be forced to close without the money it gets from the city and schools.
City Councilman Pedro Segarra, chairman of the management and budget committee, said they reinstated the $60,000 to help the literacy council have one year to find private funding. He said the city council also encouraged the school board to reinstate its funding to the group.
Despite that encouragement, Nancy R. Benben, the interim chief communications officer for the schools, said Monday that the schools had "no plan" to reinstate its portion of funding for the council — about $72,000 in salary plus benefits for the group's executive director.
Perez said the city lost $2.4 million in payments in lieu of taxes from the state, forcing it to increase its own revenue estimates and make even tighter budget decisions.
"The state government is not meeting its obligations to municipalities and towns are forced to make tough financial decisions while still providing essential services to our residents," Perez said in a press release.
The council voted to approve the reductions, which it developed in collaboration with Perez. The mayor now has 48 hours to veto the council's changes or accept them, though officials from his office said it was unlikely he would veto the plan since he collaborated on it.
Segarra said the city was feeling financial pain from many directions.
"We got squeezed from both ends," he said. "We were hoping that the state would be fair in its allocation so that we wouldn't have to burden our taxpayers. That didn't happen."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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