When a city, like a family, is beset with financial difficulty, the sensible thing is to cut back, stretch every buck, manage tightly until things get better. Hartford has the looming red ink and is, finally, embracing the needed austerity.
The city faces a shortfall of $9.4 million this year and a projected deficit of $70 million in the next fiscal year. On Monday, Mayor Pedro Segarra is expected to present a budget proposal with draconian cuts in some departments. But if the city developed a culture of thrift, such severe cuts might not be necessary.
The need for tight managment can be seen from a few examples:
•The city has paid more than $1 million over the past five years for a completely unnecessary third registrar of voters. All other municipalities have two. Hartford has a redundant third due to a quirk in state law that the city has been in no rush to correct.
•Also, the city leases take-home cars for employees who don't need them. City hall operations won't be crippled if the mayor's chief of staff has to use his own car.
•Over the past decade, the city has failed to collect tens of millions of dollars for school construction reimbursements and unpaid parking tickets, and let lesser amounts go uncollected for anti-blight fines.
•Last month, city auditors issued a report critical of the city's management and oversight of the lease arrangement for the two public golf courses, at Goodwin and Keney parks. The auditors found the private firm that leases the courses, MDM Golf of Hartford, "was not in compliance with various terms and conditions of the lease agreement." It's not yet clear whether this will cost the city any money, but the links are major assets that must be closely managed.
•Many await another report from the auditors on the use of city credit cards known as "p-cards," or purchasing cards. A post last week by blogger Kevin Brookman suggests some officials were living large at home and on the road, courtesy of the city's p-cards.
A Courant review of purchasing card statements shows that Mayor Pedro Segarra spent $6,200 on dining in restaurants between January 2011 and December 2012, and his chief of staff, Jared Kupiec, spent more than $4,300 on dining over the course of a year, from February 2012 to February 2013. Mr. Segarra says the charges reflect city business done over lunch or dinner. In a statement Thursday, he said the cards are properly monitored and actually save the city money.
TIGHTENING THE BELT A BIT
The council has taken steps to restrain spending. After some members questioned a small but needless "exceptional service increment" bonus program, Mr. Segarra and all nine council members agreed to cancel it.
In its most dramatic move in this area, the council voted to freeze all new hiring and unbudgeted overtime spending, unless approved by the council. Mr. Segarra vetoed the resolution, and the council last week overrode his veto.
While the instinct is right — unbudgeted overtime costs the city millions of dollars a year — the council here is intruding on executive function. The council should compromise and ask for periodic reports on hiring and overtime as a means of overseeing these expenses. Some departments, notably police, are making progress at reducing overtime.
As the city goes into the budget season, spending cuts are only part of the challenge. To gain fiscal stability, the city will also need a revenue plan — no small feat when it already has the highest mill rate in the state. One step would be to reassemble the fiscal task force that brought forth some good ideas three years ago. The more candlepower that can be brought to bear, the better.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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