HARTFORD — The city warned its registrars of voters Thursday that they could spend no more money — including funds for payroll — for the remainder of the fiscal year because they are nearly $120,000 over-budget.
The city had approved a 2012-13 budget of $583,909 for the registrars' office. It originally had proposed giving them $763,909, but the council cut it by $180,000. The registrars since then have reached out to the mayor's office and council members repeatedly seeking additional money.
In March, Mayor Pedro Segarra proposed transferring $66,007 to the office — which at the time was $152,000 over-budget — and recommended that the registrars reduce other expenses to cover the remaining $85,993 overrun. Segarra said the registrars "failed to act responsibly to carry out their duties within the constraints of their budget." The council has not approved the fund transfer.
On Thursday, Julio Molleda, the city's finance director, said the office is currently $117,502 over-budget.
In a letter to the registrars, Molleda said they had exceeded their budget for the year and they are "no longer authorized to expend or commit to expend city funds for any purpose."
He warned that if the registrars violated the spending restriction, they could be removed from office "upon the filing of charges and [a] hearing before the city council."
"Based on the foregoing, each registrar, the mayor, the director of human resources and labor relations, the chief operating office, the president of the court of common council and the treasurer are hereby notified that the [registrars' office] is legally barred from approving further expenditures … including payroll and non-payroll accounts," Molleda wrote in the letter. The spending freeze runs through the end of the fiscal year — June 30.
Olga Vazquez, the city's Democratic registrar of voters, said Thursday that the move was politically motivated. She noted that Segarra had supported her opponent, Democrat Ramon Arroyo, during the last election. Arroyo was the party-endorsed candidate.
She said the office has faced financial difficulty because of unforeseen events, such as an election case that wound up in court, and a subsequent special election held to decide the winner of the Democratic primary for the 5th State House District seat. If the council hadn't reduced the registrars' budget, Vazquez said, the office probably would have had an overrun of only $10,000.
Though council members at different times had suggested the registrars go part-time or reduce office staff, Vazquez said Thursday that she's already short-staffed and can't afford to cut employees.
The city has three registrars — a Democrat, a Republican and a Working Families Party member, as opposed to two, like most municipalities. By state law, the first- and second-highest vote-getters are appointed to the seats. But the law also says that both the Democratic and Republican parties must be represented in the office. The Working Families Party registrar, Urania Petit, was the second-highest vote-getter in the last election.
Maribel La Luz, Segarra's spokeswoman, said Thursday that the decision had nothing to do with politics.
"Per the city charter, no department head can close out the fiscal year over-budget or else they become personally liable for the overage amount," she said. "This is a budget mitigation strategy that will assist the city of Hartford in closing the fiscal year in the black."
For now, Vazquez said, the registrars' office will remain open, but she does not know how it will manage without being able to pay employees.
"We'll do the best we can with limited resources," she said. "In the mean time, we are asking the voters for their help. Call the mayor's office, call the city council. We need support."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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