West Haven is at a crossroad that is going to determine not only its future, but its future viability and capability to prosper at some time in the future. Sound like an exaggeration? It is not.
Mayor Nancy Rossi has a big job on her plate, and it is one that, given her own assessments of her financial abilities she is aptly capable of completing successfully.
Beginning this month, the annual process of budget making gets underway with the Board of Finance looking at the wish list each department presents as what it would like for the new fiscal year beginning July 1. Like a child’s letter to Santa Claus, these lists are whittled down to a few necessaries and, it is hoped, will not face the future slicing of the mayor’s budget team.
The process works through meetings and hearings and memos until March, when the city charter prescribes the mayor should present her recommended budget to the City Council. The council then takes the budget and does a six-week review, culminating in the passage of a budget ordinance in the best of circumstances. That ordinance will either be similar to what the mayor envisaged or will have tweaks and shifts of funds as determined by a super-majority (nine votes) of the council.
One way or the other, a budget will be enshrined for the coming fiscal year. In the best case scenario it will be by a majority vote of the council and signature by the mayor. In the worst, the council will have no consensus on the plan and cannot agree on any alterations. The charter prescribes the budget presented by the mayor will then default into law for the coming year.
This New Year and the new budget now in the political sausage grinder promise to be the most important action taken by the nascent administration in decades. Rossi, a numbers woman with CPA after her name, is expected to be prone to the foibles that have dogged city budgets for the better part of three decades.
Unlike her predecessors who consistently over-estimated revenues while under-estimating expenditures in some cases, it is expected Rossi will be coloring within the lines and mapping out a spending plan that actually reflects not only the city’s ability to spend, but the taxpayers’ ability to pay. If that sounds ominous, it is.
The State of Connecticut’s continuing saga of trying to tweak its own ill-fated budget plan will continue into the next year, and we expect that Rossi will be niggardly in her posting of state grants and aid. That will probably mean the city’s homeowners and personal property taxpayers will be asked to foot more of the bill – something that is going to happen in every one of the state’s 169 towns and cities.
If 2017 proved nothing, it proved that the long-expected bottom of the money well has been reached by the General Assembly. That means municipalities have to expect less from Hartford, while putting more on residents. The supplemental bills for car taxes are a good example of what to expect.
There is no way to sugar-coat what to expect in the next quarter year. The city has run an operating deficit in at least three of the last four fiscal years, and as of this writing the audit for last fiscal year has not yet been released. It would not be surprising to see yet another shortfall.
Rossi has set the stage by taking steps to cut costs and limit hiring. We may see more in the coming months with cutting staff by attrition or eliminating positions.
The point is the coming months will see the city take a dramatic step that has to deal with the financial realities of the here and now. Expecting windfalls from future developments has helped put us in the position we are, and has forced officials to take a heavy-handed approach.
What we hope will happen is Mrs. Rossi’s effort will stem the bleeding that has occurred over the last several years. Only when we have an accurate – and painful – reflection of the city’s true fiscal status can we make moves toward future prosperity.