The Hartford City Council Considers Harsh Cuts to Close the Budget Deficit
By Jon Campbell
March 01, 2011
The Hartford City Council had its first budget workshop of the year on Feb. 24, and while the city's finances are definitely feeling the pinch of a poor economy, the state government might be envious. The city faces a $17.8 million shortfall, which amounts to around 3.2 percent of the total budget of $544.4 million. The state's deficit, by contrast, stands at around 18 percent. Hartford itself faced a much larger deficit of over $40 million last year.
Proposals for closing the gap for next fiscal year range from securitization of the parking system read privatization increased attention to tax collection and a proposal to seek concessions from employee unions.
More than half of Hartford's budget, 52.5 percent, flows to the city's school system. Another 46 percent is dedicated to running the city, and the library system receives the final 1.5 percent.
The city is expecting revenues from taxes and fees to be stagnant next year because of the still struggling economy. But Chief Operating Officer David Panagore reminded officials that a flat revenue trend isn't such a bad thing.
Flat is the new up, Panagore said, to what may have been nervous laughter.
Declining consumer spending and the crash of the housing market have been major drivers in shrinking government coffers nationwide since the crash of 2008. Panagore said the fact that revenues are holding steady might be looked at as a good thing, at least for the time being.
The council released a survey completed in spring of last year that laid out ideas for shoring up the city's finances, and those ideas will be revisited over the coming month.
Parking securitization is one idea that still seems to have life, although it received a chilly reception when it was last aired at a city council meeting late last year. The plan would call for selling the city's parking rights to a private management company, perhaps for the next several decades, in exchange for a large infusion of cash up front.
Newly appointed Councilman Corey Brinson, the body's lone Republican, gently urged the council to be mindful of Hartford's tax rates and the overall size of the city's budget.
I'd like to, Brinson said, as I participate in these budget discussions, get us to think about whether we're taking in too much money, considering the tax rate here in Hartford.
Brinson suggested that the city may have an easier time convincing people to move to the city and stay here if Hartford was to reduce the size of its government and the services it provides.
Panagore said one of the biggest hits to city finance could come from a reduction in important federal grants. Proposals in congress could significantly reduce the city's share of Community Development Block Grants, which provide funding to dozens of local non-profit organizations and also help support some city operations. We wrote about the CDBG program recently.
Councilman Larry Deutsch of the Working Families party noted that reductions in some services need to be balanced against the potential increases in other services. The shuttering of after-school programs could lead to increased police enforcement costs, he suggested, if teenagers have fewer options for structured activities in their free time.
Mayor Pedro Segarra said he would be doing what he could to lobby against cuts at the state and federal level, and said he was eager to work with the council to come up with a budget that will serve the needs of the community.
I'm open to your suggestions. This is meant to be a collaborative process, Segarra said.
Hartford will continue its budget workshops through the end of March. All of the meetings will be open to the public, though virtually the only people in attendance at the first session were city employees and a few members of the media.