Though it has not been a week for good news, there was a flicker of the positive in Hartford. Mayor Pedro Segarra released a $543.9 million budget proposal that would not raise taxes and would retain essential city services. For taxpayers who have seen substantial increases over the past decade, that is good news — even if there's a little wishful thinking thrown in.
Mr. Segarra said his proposal, which is a fraction higher than the current budget, reflects a reduction in spending of $47.7 million, a major step in eliminating what had been projected as a $70 million deficit. The cuts include reductions to 15 of the city's 20 departments and a hiring freeze on more than 100 vacant positions.
Mr. Segarra's thrust is positive; he said in his budget statement that he's heard the "extraordinarily loud cry from residents, investors and business owners that taxes are too high." Do tell, especially for commercial taxpayers. But Mr. Segarra still has work to do. For example, $3 million in employee concessions is part of the plan. Last year Mr. Segarra was unable to get $1 million in concessions, and laid off 14 employees. Can he get $3 million this year?
To achieve a balanced budget, or semblance thereof, he proposes delaying payment of $13 million (of $37 million) into the pension fund that serves most city employees, via a memorandum of understanding that the money will be paid over the course of the fiscal year. The city did the same thing this year, with an $11 million pension contribution, of which $2.7 million, according to the city treasurer's office, is still outstanding. The mayor says it will be paid by the end of the fiscal year. As long as the payment is spread out over the year, and not deferred over a longer period, it complies with the city charter. But it appears to be kicking the fiscal can down the road.
His proposal also includes a transfer of $13.5 million from the city's rainy day fund, slightly more than half of the fund's current balance. That might not be necessary; it depends on how the state budget works out. Mr. Segarra decries the "disconnect" between the state and municipal budgeting processes, and he is absolutely right to do so. This has been a statewide problem for years; why there can't be better coordination is a mystery. Hartford relies for nearly half of its budget on state and federal funds — your archaic property tax system at work — and needs to know what the state is doing.
A budget is in no small part a planning document, and some of the plans embedded in Mr. Segarra's plan are promising. For example, the police department will receive funds to begin the process of civilianizing several divisions, including booking, auxiliary services (the scheduling office) and evidence. Amen. Thanks to generous union contracts, uniformed officers cost the city more than civilians do, so as a rule should not be used in functions that civilians can perform.
Mr. Segarra also proposes streamlining and better oversight of all departmental travel and technology purchases — an area the city auditor is currently studying — and to abolish a lifetime health care benefit for some employees. Certain non-union employees get free lifetime health coverage after 10 years of service; new employees in these positions would pay more for their health care and pensions, a step Mr. Segarra rightly says will put the city on a more sustainable path.
The budget isn't perfect — the overstaffed registrars of voters get $82,000, for some reason — but it's a step toward the culture of Yankee frugality that once infused city government, and dearly needs to again.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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