Should the state oversee Hartford's finances? In a word, no. But that is not to say there aren't deeply serious concerns about the city's financial picture.
GOP Town Chairman Michael McGarry wrote to Gov. M. Jodi Rell recently asking the governor to create an oversight board to supervise "all aspects of financial decision-making in Hartford." The board he envisions would be similar to the Waterbury Financial Planning & Assistance Board created by the state in 2001 to restore fiscal stability in the Brass City.
Although the Waterbury board has done yeoman work, such a step in Hartford would be vastly premature. Hartford has strong charter protections and fiscal controls, and does not have a huge unfunded pension liability or other issues that recommended an oversight board in Waterbury.
Why is Hartford's budget so high?
Mr. McGarry's principal complaint is that Hartford is spending too much and had to impose a potentially ruinous tax increase. Here he raises a fair question. Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez initially proposed a budget of $548 million (which was reduced to $535 million by the city council when it passed the budget on Sunday).
Mayors of the state's other large cities proposed budgets that were substantially lower: $490 million in Bridgeport, $464 million in New Haven, $453 million in Stamford. Why is the Hartford budget so much higher?
All of the state's large cities struggle to make ends meet; Hartford a bit more so. The capital city has the state's largest school system. It has among the highest rates of unemployment and poverty in the state, thus substantial social service demands. With a small geographical area of less than 18 square miles and more than 40 percent of its property off the tax rolls (including state buildings), taxes are always a challenge.
More taxpayer activism needed
Whether that explains the entire difference between Hartford's budget and that of its peer cities is hard to say. What the city could dearly use is more taxpayer activism. There need to be people — such as former councilman John O'Connell, who spoke at Sunday's budget session — who can go through the budget line by line, ask hard questions and challenge assumptions. Some South End businessmen began to do this last year, and they should be encouraged to stay with it.
An active taxpayer group could, for example, insist that each city department undergo a rigorous staffing study to determine if manpower levels are where they should be. The group could also seek opportunities for regional cost sharing.
Though the city council did reduce the budget somewhat, the average tax increase will still be more than 6 percent, which for some residents is grocery money. Some businesses will end up paying an increase of 12 percent or more, which could lead owners to consider moving to the suburbs. After the council session Sunday, council member Pedro Segarra said: "We just have to work harder next year, so that hopefully we don't continue this madness of taxing our residents out of existence."
He is right, and "we" must include Mayor Perez, whose efforts to reduce spending were inadequate. His initial budget proposal would have brought an average residential tax increase of 13 percent and some business tax increases of more than 20 percent, an unconscionable figure.
However, Hartford compares with other cities, Mr. Perez still foisted a large tax increase on city residents and businesses. If he doesn't make a stronger effort to control spending, the movement for a state oversight board could very well gain momentum.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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