Windsor considers scaling back a firehouse renovation and delaying a $450,000 road widening project, Bristol puts off building two long-planned schools, Simsbury looks at postponing a $540,000 repaving of its popular bikeway.
Tough times are here, and communities throughout the state are trying to hoard money as they hunker down for worse to come.
Many local governments have reduced hiring, frozen overtime and pushed off big construction jobs as the effects of the late-summer national financial crisis hit their budgets. Chronically troubled big cities with meager fiscal reserves have declared layoffs — 56 in Hartford, 34 in New Haven and 28 in Bridgeport.
Even historically wealthy southwestern Fairfield County towns are cutting back.
"Our goal is not to have any layoffs, but we've stopped our major capital projects this year," said Darien First Selectwoman Evonne Klein. "We're not creating new positions, and next year we're looking at a really bare-bones budget."
"Based on the first three months of the [fiscal] year, we know we're going to have to make up an inevitable shortfall," said John Crary, town administrator of Greenwich. "If you project it out, the shortfall is going to be quite a few million dollars in our budget. Greenwich is just like the rest of Connecticut, the rest of the country. We're all being hit."
Twelve of the 15 communities contacted by The Courant this week said they suspended or reduced hiring after the country's financial markets imploded in September. Most are still filling public safety jobs.
"To call it a freeze isn't realistic; it's more like a frost," Manchester General Manager Scott Shanley said. "But any time there's an opening, we analyze whether we can do without the position. Vacancies will be long-term vacancies."
The immediate pressures on municipalities reflect the ripples of the Wall Street drop-off and the staggering economy. Towns and cities report downturns in conveyance tax collections because sales — and prices — dropped when the housing boom ended. Revenue from building permits has fallen because construction faltered. Investing municipal reserve funds usually generates income, but the stock market spiral has battered that source of money, too.
"We are seriously impacted in terms of conveyance fees, interest income and building permit fees to the tune of about 50 percent of our estimates at this point," said Steven R. Werbner, town manager of Tolland.
Many towns budgeted for a weak year, but few anticipated conditions this bad. Glastonbury and Canton reported that their revenues were mostly in line with what they had anticipated, and Farmington's projection of a nearly 50 percent drop-off in investment revenue paid off.
"Our interest income last year was budgeted at $1.2 million, but we were very conservative this year and reduced the interest income [projection] to $625,000," said Farmington Finance Director Joseph Swetcky. "We're on target to make $610,000 for the year."
Wethersfield, East Hartford, West Hartford, Windsor, Simsbury, Vernon, Southington, Manchester, Bristol and Stonington are among the large and mid-size Connecticut communities that are trying to brake spending immediately. Mostly, they're putting off construction projects until another year, eliminating out-of-state travel and cutting payroll by attrition, although Vernon is going a step further — seeking union concessions.
"We've renegotiated supply contracts, we're looking for savings everywhere," Vernon Mayor Jason McCoy said. "I want to see if we can work on [labor] contracts and renegotiate. I wouldn't want to look at layoffs as an option."
So far, layoffs and service cutbacks have been confined to the big cities. Leaders of mid-size and small communities don't anticipate that will change, but they acknowledge two possibilities that could force their hands: A drop-off in payments when cash-strapped residents get their January tax bills, or an emergency cutback in aid from the state government.
Municipal officials are already looking ahead to the winter, when they'll begin assembling proposals for the budget year that starts in July.
"That's the larger, looming issue," Shanley said. "This is not a problem that looks like it will go away in the next year or two. I've been through what we might call sharp downturns before, but what's different this time is that we never really recovered from 01-'02. We've been cutting and tightening since then."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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