Culminating a process that began more than a year ago, Nancy Rossi will be sworn in as the city’s first female mayor in ceremonies at West Haven High School at noon on Sunday. Along with Rossi will be the incoming City Council, Board of Education and several other boards and commissions. The pomp of the day will include the usual music, speeches and promises expected at such affairs. It is what happens after the festivities that should interest and concern each and every city taxpayers and resident.
Rossi is walking into a political buzz saw and she knows it. After several terms on the City Council and stints on that panel’s Finance Committee, she knows the city’s condition viz. its finances is desperate at best. She has long been a critic of city spending practices and the lack of cost-cutting. Her own political history is awash of hopscotching between the three factions that control the city’s Democratic Party, looking for allies to implement long-term fixes.
Indeed, it must be remembered she was a supporter of Edward M. O’Brien when he ran against John M. Picard in 2012 in the party primary. Candidate O’Brien was a staunch advocate of drastic cost-cutting, including an across-the-board five percent spending cut, and other measures to get the city’s finances into line.
O’Brien hedged on making the cuts, doing so only after it became apparent the city’s status was becoming more and more tenuous. By that time, though, Rossi once again changed alliances and worked as a burr in the saddle of the administration until she was unseated from the City Council. That was when she determined she would run for mayor.
Right now, the city is an estimated $16.8 million in debt. The operating deficit was originally $10.8 million, when discovered by the Picard administration in 2005-6. Picard opted to carry the deficit when he implemented a freeze on bonding in order to pay down the debt service of more than $200 million in bonding that had been approved in the previous few years. That debt service threatened to become a budget-buster if left unattended. He had hoped better financial conditions would help pay down the debt. It did for a while, but the regional economy did not rebound after the 2008 crash, and what was at one time down to $4.8 million boomeranged back to more than $10 million.
Rossi sided with the Connecticut Municipal Finance Assistance Committee (MFAC) in looking to bond to pay off the shortfall. She supported Mayor O’Brien’s efforts to bond the deficit. However, the O’Brien administration helped make a bad situation worse. Three budgets in a row came in under estimates, pushing the debt higher and higher. The audit for Fiscal Year 2017, which ended June 30, is still to be seen, but it is expected that too will be written in red ink.
Just last week, the O’Brien administration announced the sale of $25.77 million in bonds, which will pay the deficit and pay off projects begun over the last three years. The latter part of that sentence is problematic enough, but what concerns the incoming mayor is that the $16 million earmarked for debt reduction will not be enough. If last year’s budget comes in under-funded the city can find itself in the red once again.
The bottom line is the new administration is expecting to make unpopular decisions. Cost-cutting measures must be implemented. The state’s own budget problems have put to the fore the insatiable appetite this municipality has for outside funding, an appetite that has attempted to keep the status quo in personnel and services.
Still to be determined is a codicil in the state budget enactment that would give the city $8 million of funds to fill a budgetary gap over and above any revenue-side shortfall. That would include a review board that would have at least advisory powers, but might include powers of jurisdiction over that of elected boards and commissions.
Nancy Rossi sought and won the mayoralty of West Haven. She ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility and austerity. Those planks do not make for popularity or longevity in the political world. She is going to make difficult decisions and the people of the city will have to endure difficult times. In the long run, the decisions and implemented goals will be a step toward managing our affairs in a more prudent way.
Fiscal austerity is something politicians have talked about for decades, but have had neither the will nor fortitude to implement. Rossi may be the one to do it.