The city of Hartford was in the hole $6 million last year, will likely be in the red $8 million this year, and could have a $44 million deficit next year.
That's the message Mayor Eddie A. Perez delivered Thursday afternoon, threatening cuts and layoffs and telling the city that it will need to take $6 million from its roughly $34 million savings to balance last year's $525.6 million budget.
Perez cited "the economic downturn and slowed growth in state and federal aid" in a press release Thursday. He said that the city will implement cost-saving measures like reducing vehicle use, restricting travel, conserving energy, asking unions for concessions, and continuing a hiring freeze.
"These difficult economic times are going to require further belt-tightening by city government," said Perez, who put much of the blame for the deficit on the state for transferring the cost of government services to the city.
In May, the city council adopted a $547 million budget for fiscal 2008-09, an increase of about 4 percent, or more than $21 million, from current spending.
City council members were forlorn in their assessments Thursday.
"It's not easy to raise this kind of money," said city council President Calixto Torres. "The budget is pretty tight the way it is."
He noted that although Perez is contemplating layoffs, savings from such a move wouldn't really materialize until the next fiscal year — and would do little to solve this year's projected deficit problem. That means the city may have to dip into its savings again this year to balance the budget, he said.
City Councilman Pedro Segarra chairs the council's budget committee and he worried that less money in the city's rainy day fund could make it more expensive for the city to borrow money. He also wants to know whether the city's revenue projections for tax collections were too high.
Finally, he is concerned that Perez continues to make new hires when "there's supposed to be a hiring freeze."
"I understand that there are positions that need to be filled, and the mayor does have some discretion," Segarra said. "But if we want to be fiscally conservative, and we're facing a deficit situation, then we should enforce it strictly. Otherwise, how can we send a message to others in city government that this is for real?"
The police union's president, Richard Rodriguez, said he was taking a wait-and-see attitude. He's a city resident, and he knows the pain of higher taxes, he said.
"I don't think it's in the best interest of the city to lay off police officers or firefighters," Rodriguez said. "But my family feels the pinch, so I can see both sides of the issue."
Municipal employees' union president Clarke King said no concessions, nohow.
"The last time we did concessions they gave all the management a raise," King said. "[Perez] can't talk out both sides of his mouth. … If I balanced my checkbook like he balances the city budget, we're in trouble."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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