At a meeting at Hartford City Hall, Council members and Mayor Eddie Perez were asked what words they hope city residents will use to describe the upcoming city budget once it is finalized.
“None of the words that were used [to describe it] last year,” joked Councilman Ken Kennedy.
Saturday’s meeting was called, in part, in an effort to avoid the brutal battle that was waged over last year’s budget, which was only finalized at a special Sunday morning meeting, just hours before the state-mandated deadline was due to expire.
City leaders are also looking to get an early start on this year’s budget because Hartford is currently facing a deficit of approximately $40 million. The Council’s Committee of the Whole (COW), will hold a series of meeting over the next three months on the budget.
Councilman Jim Boucher said, “None of us are here as part of a feel-good exercise. We’re here because of the $40 million gap. We need to be as open and candid as possible.”
According to Council President Pedro Segarra, the extended budget process is also designed so that, “when information [about city finances] is needed, it will be forthcoming in a timely way.”
At its first meeting last December, COW members were told that city expenses for the Fiscal Year 2010-2011 were estimated to be $569.3 million while revenue was predicted to be only $529.3 million.
Last Saturday’s meeting was mainly devoted to setting ground rules and goals for the next six COW meeting. The mayor is then scheduled to present his proposed budget to council on April 19. Council will then return an amended version to the mayor on May 21. Final adoption of the budget is due on May 31.
At the end of Saturday’s meeting, each council person and the mayor gave ideas on how to reduce expenses and increase revenue. These ideas included consolidating departments, regionalizing some services, extending employee furloughs, reducung enrgy costs through new technology, spacing out payments for lawsuits lost by the city and a hotel tax.
Another method of dealing with the city’s budget gap was raised at last Thursday night’s meeting of the Maple Avenue Revitalization Group (MARG). Kennedy and Segarra both spoke about the budget at the meeting.
After Kennedy’s presentation, city resident Alyssa Peterson said, “You’ve talked about raising taxes and cutting services [to remedy the budget deficit], but I’d like to suggest a third option: bankruptcy.” If Hartford were to declare bankruptcy, a state-appointed board would take over the city’s finances. That board would have more power to make cuts, such as closing schools, than the city currently has.
Kennedy responded that while State-takeovers had worked in Bridgeport and Waterbury, at that time the State was financially secure. Now, he said, the State is facing serious budget shortfalls of its own.
Kennedy also pointed out that the school system’s proposed budget ($284,554,001) is larger than the rest of the city combined ($243,299,190) plus the library ($7,915,000). Segarra said that Council will closely examine the school system’s budget, saying, “Do we need all our schools? I’ll put that on the table...Maybe this is a unique opportunity to reform our government.” Kennedy agreed, saying, “There has to be a discussion about the size and scope of our government. We need to decide what we can and cannot afford.”