It’s no secret that Hartford is facing a $50 million budget deficit this coming fiscal year, leaving leaders of nearby towns to offer support and possible solutions – or, in some cases, no sympathy.
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin is trying to clear up misconceptions about the city’s situation and gain – at the very least – a collective understanding among its neighbors. The entire state should be concerned about the health of its capital city, Bronin pointed out.
“We’re all in the same boat. Hartford may be in the end with the hole in it, with our feet in the water, but it’s the same boat.”
State Sen. Terry Gerratana, D-6th District, described the relationship between urban centers and suburbs as symbiotic.
“Hartford is a megalopolis and it’s important to our region,” Gerratana said. “There are many people in District 6, including myself, who work in Hartford and whose livelihoods depend on the businesses here. Of course, I would not want to see Hartford city government or the municipality become fractured.”
Gerratana added that she supports Bronin in his attempts to resolve the city’s financial crisis.
“What the mayor is doing is important because he is standing up, trying to get stakeholders involved in this. I admire his effort to go forth and have these discussions with surrounding communities. Hartford should remain strong. Hopefully they will be able to pull themselves out of their fiscal distress.”
Some maintain that, ultimately, situations such as the one in Hartford could be avoided if Connecticut embraces the regionalization of services.
Education is one obvious area in which regionalization could be implemented, Gerratana pointed out.
“We have 169 towns in our state and 169 school superintendents. That probably should be regionalized and centralized to save our towns a bit of money,” she said. “Have the state Department of Education take over, but sustain separate boards of education to make local decisions. That kind of approach might be a good one to pursue.”
Bronin is a proponent of regionalizing services.
“I think we should be doing a lot more to push in that direction, because it makes a lot of sense,” he said, but warned that it wouldn’t necessarily be a quick fix for Hartford’s current problems.
The concept is one many other states across America have put into practice. Many governmental entities serve counties, rather than individual cities and towns. New York City’s population is nearly three times the size of Connecticut’s, yet it is served by one police department. Harris County, Texas, stretches over 1,700 square miles but uses a single emergency dispatch center.
“If you were going to build a state from scratch with three million people, you would not break it up into 169 towns with separate services,” Bronin said.
State Rep. Rick Lopes, who represents New Britain and Newington in the 24th District, is fairly certain that Hartford will climb out of its hole.
“They’ll have to make some sacrifices and there will be some pain, but I think they’ll come out OK,” Lopes said.
State Sen. Henri Martin, whose 31st District includes Bristol, Plainville and Plymouth, has been in contact with local leaders, who are opposed to reducing their own municipalities’ funding to bail out Hartford.
“They feel as if they are being punished for years of fiscal responsibility,” he said. “It’s unfortunate to see Hartford facing its current financial situation, but this was years in the making. Bad management decisions and a number of other factors led to this.”
If Martin has any advice to offer Hartford officials, it would basically be to trim the fat.
“An evaluation needs to be done to determine which programs are producing the results expected and which ones are not,” he said. “Continuing failing programs is a drain on the budget and a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
He places some of the blame on fellow state legislators, particularly those who have supported saddling towns with unfunded mandates the last several years.
“I am a strong believer in reducing the onerous, unfunded mandates that have a stranglehold on local budgets,” Martin said. “Eliminating some of these costly measures would not only improve budget-making decisions for small towns, it helps Hartford with some of its budget problems.”
In terms of regionalism, Martin’s perspective is “to each their own.”
“I think this is a great way for communities to pool their resources, but it has to be each community’s decision. Regionalization is not something that should be forced on the municipalities by the state.”
Bristol Mayor Ken Cockayne said Bronin should not be blamed for Hartford’s debt, which began growing long before he took office in January 2016.
“I wish Mayor Bronin luck as he tries to get the mess he walked into in order,” Cockayne added. “He’s got quite a task ahead of him.”
Bristol, like other small cities across the state, faces a challenge this upcoming budget season.
“It’s my hope as mayor that our funding stays solid and the state doesn’t cut our municipal aid,” Cockayne said. “We’re sitting at the edge of our seats waiting to see what happens.”
One year ago, he added, the city wasn’t so lucky.
“Last year the state cut $1.2 million from Bristol’s municipal aid and unfortunately, there was no way to absorb that into our budget. It ultimately left the Board of Finance no alternative but to increase taxes to make up for that deficit. The state can no longer rely on the back of the municipalities to balance their budgets,” Cockayne continued. “We have our house in order; it’s time for the state to get their house in order and start balancing a budget.”
Bronin attributed Hartford’s budget deficit to, more than anything else, the fact that non-taxable organizations and similar entities account for more than half of all property. Some have suggested the city ask the University of Hartford and Trinity College to offer some relief, following the example set by universities in Boston and Providence. Those who attend or work at city schools benefit from local businesses and services, yet these institutions don’t pay any taxes.
Among all the recommendations made since the news about Hartford’s debt began circulating, filing for bankruptcy protection is one Bronin said he doesn’t plan on pursuing.
“We would be the first state in the country to have its capital city go bankrupt,” he pointed out. “That would do nothing for Connecticut’s future.”
The mayor went on to call this option “long, uncertain and costly.”
Hartford officials join leaders from across the state in anxious anticipation of Gov. Dannel Malloy’s budget presentation on Wednesday, which is expected to paint a clearer picture of municipal aid.
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or email@example.com.