Mayor Luke Bronin’s emergency call Monday, for a financial oversight commission unique to Hartford, put this year’s excruciating cost-cutting choices into clear relief, fractured the City Council, and mobilized opposition forces.  The inevitability of significant layoffs and school consolidation in Hartford’s schools is scary enough, however, without exaggerated scare tactics.

And yet unrestrained hype too often did set the tone Monday at the Legislative Office Building hearing on the proposed Hartford Financial Sustainability Commission, S.B. 464.

Mayor Bronin was accused of ignoring historic collaborations with unions and seeking either to end collective bargaining or become its overseer, disempower the City Council (and democracy), become the czar of Hartford, and engage in political theater at Hartford’s expense, on his way to becoming governor.  “He wants to be the dominion maker of everything,” according to Hartford Police Union President Richard “Rick” Holton.

With this level of distraction in the midst of a fiscal crisis, is there any wonder why we have one?  When pressed, the same witnesses Monday acknowledged that the mayor has met with union presidents as a group – and some more than once (although he has not negotiated).  According to many union allies who popped up from all over the state, the mayor is exaggerating Hartford’s problem.

One Hartford cop, also a selectman in another town for about a decade, actually re-did the math and found the City’s situation to be not so bad.  Others doubted deficit projections because they have risen under iterative analyses.  The MetroHartford Alliance weighed in as well, here.

NBC CT yesterday reported that some 200 positions may be cut in the District due to deficits, as the Courant detailed here.

Here’s a rundown on the emergent issues, taking into account Mayor Bronin’s points of emphasis:

  •  After checking further, the FY 17 deficit is not the originally estimated $30 million, but now projected to be $48.5 million; unaddressed, the mayor said, “maybe slowly, maybe quickly, but surely,” the deficits will kill the city of Hartford.  As he put it, “There’s a limit to how much you can cut when you are already providing basic services.”
  •  The bill was not, as alleged, disrespectfully advanced at the last minute without consultation, but simply had to meet the General Assembly’s short-session deadline;
  • The mayor will submit his budget to Council April 18th (to be followed by a rescheduled Hartford Board of Education workshop April 19th);
  •  He should probably be asking the State for an additional $60 million to $70 million, the mayor said, given the quiet deficit of payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) collections on tax-exempt State properties.  These losses are compounded by the extraordinary region-wide services provided in Hartford by untaxed nonprofits;
  •  Instead of a 74 mill rate, if Hartford had the lower 45 mill rate comparable in the region, its deficit would balloon to $100 million; and
  • Hartford’s fate is bound to have ripple effects region-wide (in home sales and unemployment numbers, etc.).

The after-effects could be even worse if businesses see the current fiscal crisis as cause to move out of the city or state.

What Is the Financial Sustainability Commission?

At a Rawson School Town Hall last Thursday, the mayor went over the make-up of the proposed nine-member Hartford Financial Sustainability Commission (to comprise himself, two City Council members, the City Treasurer, two members appointed by City Council [labor and small business reps], two members appointed by the mayor [a taxpayer and a major taxpayer], and one State representative).

The commission, he maintained, would not take power away from City Council, but rather enhance it, as it would supplant arbitration panels that now decide contracts and benefits without regard for local fiscal consequences.  With $100 million in annually growing, untouchable City commitments – and taking into account the lackadaisical pace of traditional arbitration – it is a reasonable measure in Hartford’s crisis.

The Sustainability Commission legislation, the mayor said, is modeled after what was done in Waterbury as to providing problem-solving tools, but differs, in that it maintains City authority.  “We didn’t just want to hand over the keys,” he said.

Pressed Monday at the LOB to say what would happen to Hartford absent the commission, Mayor Bronin was clear.  “We don’t necessarily have the ability to make these changes ourselves,” he said.  “We would be rolling the dice at a time when every dollar counts and we are on the brink.”

The Bottom Line.  There are many dimensions to the Fiscal 2017 fiscal crisis, but we can predict what it will mean for the schools … regardless of whether there is a sustainability commission or the city goes into bankruptcy.

Half of the City budget goes to Hartford Public Schools.  The funding level has already been flat for eight years – and a decrease is likely.

Neighborhood schools, with the neediest students, low performing for a long time, require even greater targeted support, not less.  Cuts being discussed now could have negative ramifications for the District’s strategic acceleration agenda for a long time.

With layoffs now under way at central office and fast coming to the schools, one must question whether our already strapped District is now about to rocket down a slippery slope, especially if the City cannot match itsState-required minimum budget requirement (MBR) from past years – and hence put vital State funding on the chopping block, too.

Fiscal viability for Hartford’s capital city is the foundation on which our children’s – and the State’s – economic futures rest.  In the present and projected fiscal environments, the overriding special interests on the table must lean not toward adults, but yield to preserving educational opportunities for children, especially those most disadvantaged.