How can families plan a year's budget without knowing how much income they can expect?
They can't — and neither can towns or cities, according to frustrated municipal leaders who might have to start their fiscal year with just a guess about their revenues.
With less than a week to go before the General Assembly's session ends, municipal leaders on Wednesday showed up at the Capitol to press lawmakers and the governor to end their stalemate and produce a budget — fast. They fear that if legislators don't lock in municipal aid now, it will be too tempting from them to slash those grants later if Connecticut's tax revenues continue to plummet over the summer.
"We've done our job, we've made the difficult choices," said Simsbury First Selectman Mary Glassman, whose town had to furlough staff, freeze wages, lay off workers and cut services to balance its new budget. "Now we're asking the governor and legislature to do their job."
Until a new state spending plan is negotiated, communities throughout Connecticut will have to gamble on how much state aid to build into local budgets that take effect July 1. Most are banking on getting the same amount as last year, but they fear that local aid will be cut if the state revenue forecast continues to decline while Gov. M. Jodi Rell and lawmakers debate a new budget.
In the scenario that town officials fear the most, Rell and lawmakers will take until August or longer to settle a budget. By then, plunging state revenue might drive lawmakers to cut municipal aid — even though towns and cities would already be deep into their new budgets. If that happens, communities would have to respond with either drastic service cutbacks and emergency layoffs, raids on their reserve funds or, perhaps, supplemental tax bills, said James Finley Jr., executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.
For cities that have already slashed staff and chopped services, more cuts would be crippling, said Andrew Nunn, chief administrative officer in Bridgeport.
"Any further cuts would dramatically affect public safety," Nunn said. "The mayor signed a budget [Tuesday] that's got $3 million less spending than this year. We've ordered a 10 percent reduction in all departments, we've sold city property, we have a hiring freeze, a travel ban and [agreements for] zero percent wage increases from 11 of our 13 unions."
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, the Council of Small Towns and the Capitol Regional Council of Governments sponsored Wednesday's press conference to urge Rell and ranking legislators to let municipal leaders attend their closed-door budget negotiations.
The Republican governor and Democratic lawmakers seem to be playing a game of political "chicken" with the state budget, and the stalemate threatens to drag on into the summer or even later, according to the mayors and first selectmen who attended Wednesday's session. During bitter disputes in 1991 and 2003, the state did not set budgets until mid-August. Unlike towns that must adopt budgets before July 1, the state may simply pass the deadline and then pay its bills through short-term funding plans or executive orders.
Rell and legislators have said they want to keep local aid steady, but municipal lobbyists worry that they might renege on that pledge if Connecticut's projected $8.7 billion two-year deficit grows.
" New Haven will close its second elementary school in a year. We've closed three senior centers, cut 225 positions and we're maintaining our parks with 40 percent less personnel than five years ago," New Haven Mayor John DeStefano said. "But with all of that, I can't tell my city residents that their budget is balanced."
Neither Rell's staff nor Democratic leaders attended the session.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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