HARTFORD - Hours ahead of a charter-imposed deadline, members of Hartford's city council narrowly passed a $535 million budget Sunday afternoon that none of them said they liked.
The compromise budget will increase the tax rate by 4.44 mills, or 6.5 percent. That is higher than council members had wanted, but half the increase originally proposed by Mayor Eddie A. Perez.
Still, there was no sense of victory during the rare Sunday session, with several council members saying that the budget for 2009-10 both raised taxes too high and cut services too deeply. But those who voted for the spending plan said that the alternative — a budget that would have raised taxes at least twice as much — was unacceptable.
Perez said that the budget was not perfect and required tough choices. But he praised those who had passed it.
"Compromise won out over catastrophe," Perez said in a statement released after the 5-4 vote. "The City Council had two simple choices and they chose the wiser and more responsible one. In the end, they did the job the voters elected them to do."
Still unclear is whether the budget will require layoffs. Council members had originally cut $6.4 million in salaries and benefits from the mayor's proposed budget, but Perez later reduced that figure to $3.2 million — an amount that city officials hope to reach through union concessions without cutting the workforce.
The overall spending amount is the same as the council was debating at the end of last week, when city officials anticipated a 5.44-mill increase in taxes. But new and higher revenue projections reduced that by 1 mill, and that was enough to tip the scale in favor of passage.
But the 6.5 percent rate hike was not popular with residents who filled the city council chambers on Sunday, where comments bashing the budget drew loud applause.
John O'Connell, a member of the Hartford Small Businesses and Taxpayers Alliance, interrupted as council President Calixto Torres spoke in favor of passage, and then fairly dared Torres to have him forcibly removed.
Instead, Torres called for a vote on the budget, and in rapid-fire succession, the council members made it official, with Democrats Torres, rJo Winch, Jim Boucher and Matt Ritter, and Republican Veronica Airey-Wilson, voting for the budget; and Working Families Party members Larry Deutsch and Luis Cotto joining with Democrats Ken Kennedy and Pedro Segarra in voting against it.
Ritter said that a vote for the budget plan was the best choice that council members had, but that he found it so distasteful that he wished there had been an additional supporter on the council — so that he could have registered a "no" vote without jeopardizing passage.
Ritter said that the council's control of the budget was restricted by a charter provision requiring the votes of seven of the nine council members to override a mayoral veto. He said that he would be sending a letter to the Charter Review Commission "as soon as the voting is over," urging that the number be reduced to six — representing two-thirds of the council.
Segarra, who ran the council's budget proceedings, said that he voted against the budget to protest a process in which he said the mayor did not do enough to offer a budget that residents could afford.
"We just have to work harder next year, so that hopefully we don't continue this madness of taxing our residents out of existence," he said.
Cotto said that there was much to dislike about the budget, but that he was voting against passage mainly because the process had disrespected unionized workers, who he said were not given a fair opportunity to participate in finding a budget solution.
Torres and Boucher both said that taxing and spending issues were partly beyond the council's control, with unfunded state mandates that must be paid for with a property tax base in which large swaths of the city are tax-exempt.
Boucher said that the budget required unusually difficult compromises in exceptionally difficult times. He said that he reluctantly voted to reduce requested funding for foreclosure assistance, for example, even though he strongly believes in the program.
"I was willing to say: 'This is not the time to do that' — as much as this might be the time to do that," he said.
But Kennedy said that some of those compromises could have been avoided if the mayor had been willing to make other cuts. In particular, he said that Perez should have asked for more concessions from higher-salaried, nonunion workers, including those on the mayor's staff of 24.
"They must be part of the sacrifice," Kennedy said. "If you're asking for sacrifice from the bottom, then you need to send the symbolic message from the top that we're all in this together."
Although he opposed the budget, Kennedy said that he respected those who intended to vote in favor, telling them, "you will not hear me speak of you badly" — a comment that drew an incredulous chuckle from Winch.
Perez had said in recent days that if the council failed to pass a budget, the charter would impose a spending plan that would have raised taxes by 16 mills, or $16 for every $1,000 in assessed property value. But some council members said that was incorrect, with Ritter saying the "100-percent truth" was that the charter would enact a budget that would raise the tax rate by about 9 mills. He said that reaction to the 16-mill assertion "shows you how powerful misinformation can be."
But Perez repeated the 16-mill figure after the vote, and the conflict is based on differing interpretations of a charter rule governing the budget process.
O'Connell, of the taxpayers' group, said after the vote that the process was a "farce" and revealed deep flaws in the city's management.
"It's not mismanaged; it's unmanaged," he said. "As residents, we're tired of getting top-dollar taxes and lousy services."
In the council discussions before the vote, Ritter said that he had tried to see the issue through the eyes of an imaginary city homeowner struggling to pay his taxes.
Even with a budget that shaved millions off the mayor's proposal, Ritter said that the council is in for criticism. That typical homeowner is going to open his next tax bill, Ritter said, "and he's going to hate every one of us."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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