Mayor Luke Bronin April 18th underscored the City’s fiscal situation as “worse than we could have imagined,” with a deficit of $48.5 million looming for Fiscal 2017.
Two days later, as a sign of the City’s weak financial position, its bond rating was lowered.
When the mayor last week recommended his budget, he warned of continuing ripple-effect deficits in the years ahead. Pointing out that Hartford’s mill rate (74.29) is almost twice as high as any other city or town in the state – he said he won’t recommend higher taxes. His initial concept was to set up a Financial Sustainability Commission to preserve City options, keeping City Council and mayoral oversight in place, rather than accede to a lack of control in the event of bankruptcy. The City Council and State legislative delegation deep sixed that oversight concept fast.
Unfortunately, one of the easiest available escape routes, for decades, has been a tail-light exodus from Hartford every single day; the pattern of segregation that has beleaguered our metropolitan region.
Poverty is concentrated in most metro areas, as it is in CT cities, as are the service providers for our society’s deepest hardships. Being in service to children is not cheap. Ignoring the issue of regionalization is cheap. Cuts are being felt now – and they’re deep.
In Hartford, a further raising of taxes would be a negative incentive, possibly driving out employers. For this reason, the mayor has vowed not to hike taxes (already at the highest level in the state … and in one of the poorest cities in the U.S.).
The mayor discussed the City budget at a town hall yesterday (see today’s Courant article for details). He also has detailed a number of indicators of what is commonly referred to as the City’s “structural deficit”:
- Small Tax Base. Hartford is a 17-square mile city in an otherwise wealthy metropolitan region. Yet half the City’s property (among State, religious institution, and nonprofit organizations) is tax exempt. No more blood in that tiny turnip.
- Not Done with this Year’s Deficit Yet. The Fiscal 2016 budget, with its underestimated overtime, pension, and other payout costs, led to the projected deficit and layoffs yet to be resolved. Deficits going forward are one thing; the one going backward isn’t pretty either.
- The Cupboard Is Bare. Past reliance on one-time sales of City property to save the day this day has run out of gas. While the City does recommend conveying its Battison Park land in Farmington to its pension fund (to help defray coming costs), there are no more band aids. Indeed, the City reserve fund for emergencies will hit zero next year and the budget recommendation calls for eliminating 40 non-uniformed positions.
- Trade-Off. Police District Service Officers and other special duty police officers will be returned to patrol and subsidies for festivals and parades will end, and even more significant reductions will occur in every area, including those for the Department of Families, Children, Youth & Recreation, so crucial to early preschool and enrichment activities. That’s a profound killing-your-seed-corn issue.
- No Gain. Education, representing half the City budget at $284 million, will remain flat funded for the eighth consecutive year. The normal – and rising – cost of living increases for staff at all levels take place annually; those rising costs have had an impact on student resources for almost a decade.
- Back of the Bus. As well, a dramatic reduction is proposed for school construction funded under the City’s Capital Improvement Plan. To minimize future borrowing, the mayor proposes to put the brakes on the previously announced plans for knocking down and rebuilding the environmentally challenged Clark School and finally renovating Dr. Martin Luther King Middle School (the original Weaver High School). The more recent Weaver High School facility on Granby Street, where renovations have been well under way and on course to be completed, is going forward at the moment.
For perspective, Governor Dannel Malloy recently relayed State budget details on the WNPR “Where We Live” program, online here. The nation has endured 11 recessions since World War II, he said, and the Great Recession of 2008 certainly was the worst since the Depression of the late 1920s, which had at least a 30-year impact. Recovery takes time. With State revenue sources deteriorating – and levels of growth so important to spearhead spending, the State will have to adjust its priorities to a new reality, the governor said.
The Bottom Line. The governor – and Hartford’s mayor and school superintendent – are now under the broiler of budget cuts, very steep for Fiscal 2017. However distressing the reductions may be now, the projections for tomorrow, unless corrected, foretell an even deeper plunge. Year-by-year manipulations have tended to disguise the structural deficits that annually drag us down.