Mayor Tim O’Brien has proposed a budget that he says will maintain level services while not raising taxes, but some leaders are questioning the plan, saying it’s not the right time to borrow money and that the budget relies on lofty revenue expectations.
The $239,557,539 budget for 2013-14 represents an increase of about $7 million over the current year’s $232,484,709 spending plan.
“Too often, people choose difficult times as the moment to stick their heads in the sand, cower and hope for the tough times to pass,” O’Brien said in recent remarks. “They look at tough budget challenges and say that we must do less to maintain and invest in their communities. But I believe that communities that adopt a head-in-the-sand policy during these times will find that their belief in doing less will only result in falling further behind.”
The mayor’s office contends that savings totaling “millions of dollars a year” will come through “consolidations” and “increased efficiencies.” Some of those savings have already come to fruition by downsizing 22 departments into 6, a move that the mayor says has reduced overlapping jobs.
Alderman Jamie Giantonio says he has “serious concerns” about O’Brien’s budget, mainly with the revenue streams. Giantonio says anticipated revenue for many parking related-items like meters, garages, and tickets were doubled or tripled. The Liberty Square garage, for example, has never made more than $640,000 in a given year, yet city officials are counting on $1.75 million for the next fiscal year, according to Giantonio’s analysis. “That would require us to triple parking rates,” he said. “No one is going to come down and park in any of those garages if we make those fees that much.”
City officials are also anticipating collecting $1.8 million under the new “hot spot” ordinance, $500,000 from the sale of property, and nearly double a five-year high of the amount collected from the sanitation stream.
Leaders are also questioning budget line items like $300,000 more for a community development office, $69,000 for “legislative support,” and spending in the “economic development and policy office” going up $300,000.
“There is no breakdown for what that money is for,” Giantonio said. “Is it for salaries? There are no details.”
As part of his proposal, O’Brien wants to bond $6 million to pay for “streetscape” improvements, such as adding pedestrian and bicycle features and making a connection to the Hartford busway station. He is also seeking to bond, $5 million to continue reconstruction efforts on Broad Street. His economic plan also includes $750,000 set aside for sidewalk repairs and $4 million to reopen the Chesley and Washington Park swimming pools, more than $500,000 in investments to improve athletic fields and city parks, and $200,000 to fix vandalized war memorials.
O’Brien also wants to bond $5 million to repave city streets, 60 percent of which are in need of repair, he says. The mayor says that the city will “continue to pursue” state and federal grants to offset any improvement work.
This borrowing is on top of the $22.6 million he has proposed to put towards the school system. The city has $221 million in outstanding bond debt, according to Giantonio.
“I think he is just going to bond everything, kick the can down the road, and hope the economy gets better,” Giantonio said of the bonding.
Minority leader Wilfredo Pabon said that while the mayor may have promised no taxes in the 2013-14 fiscal year, he questions what will happen in the subsequent years when the millions in borrowing will have to be paid down. A rating agency has warned that it would downgrade the city’s debt rating if significant amounts of debt were taken on.
“I’m not supporting it the way it is because we don’t know where we are going to get that $22.6 million,” Pabon said, referring the allotment O’Brien has proposed for technology upgrades, textbooks, and facility improvements. “We’re looking at it now and we’ll see what happens, but we do need money for the schools.”
As for the bonding that O’Brien has proposed for items like roads and sidewalks, Pabon said “things are tight” right now and those initiatives should be held off.
Giantonio said he would agree to bonding for capital improvements, but said he couldn’t support bonding for books and technology unless they were short-term bonds.
In remarks last month, O’Brien called for investing in the city’s backbone.
“This basic infrastructure not only affects how our neighborhoods look to ourselves and visitors, but it also affects our city’s economic prospects — telling prospective investors whether our community is a place in which they want to invest,” O’Brien said. “We are wise to invest in our roads, sidewalks and infrastructure.”
Still, some are questioning the increase in spending, particularly in a year when the city’s grand list, or total amount of taxable property dropped by 17 percent—the largest decrease in 30 years.
“This year is election year, but next year it isn’t,” Pabon said of O’Brien’s no-tax pledge. “We’ll see what happens then.”
Other new initiatives O’Brien has proposed include adding two new positions, a health and housing inspector that would be tasked with carrying out recently enacted ordinances, like the landlord business license and anti-blight measure. He is also seeking to boost the number of police officers from 130 to 172, most of which would be paid for through the city’s general fund. Also, $1.29 million in new funding would go towards purchasing gear and equipment for firefighters.
Assistant Minority Leader Adam Platosz said O’Brien has done a “pretty good” job crafting his budget and said the mayor has “a lot of good ideas” that he supports.
“We are not increasing any taxes,” Platosz says. “I’m trying to keep up with the mayor and see if we can stay without any increase. I don’t want any tax increase.”
Platosz says that neighboring towns often brag their taxes are lower than what residents have to pay in New Britain. “We pay enough taxes,” Platosz said. “We would like to compete with them.”
As for his bonding proposals, Platosz said: “My main priority—everything is main, but roads need to be fixed and you can’t go without fixing the roads.”
Platosz maintains that the mayor has been able to find savings by combing each line item in the budget and not going over set targets. That, combined with retirements, have helped to absorb some of the budget’s increase in spending, he says.
“We’re still working on and we’re still going to go back and forth on it,” Platosz said. “We’re not trying to cut any services and we don’t want to impact the entire city.”
Alderman David DeFronzo said he was still reviewing the budget line items. “I have to look at both sides of the budget until I make determination on it,” he said.
Giantonio says he called last year’s budget “smoke and mirrors” and says this proposal is no different. It’s filled with “unattainable revenue items and questionable increases in spending.”
“I don’t believe 90 percent of what is in here for revenue,” Giantonio said. “To me, it was like the revenue items were backed into. There is no way I’m voting for this budget until some work is done to the revenue numbers.”
Other Aldermen did not return calls or refused comment from the City Journal.