Back-and-forth not helpful
A back-and forth between the current and former mayor concerning the empaneling of a state review board and an $8 million gap in the city’s budget is perplexing for us, so we are not surprised if city taxpayers are questioning as well. Let us review:
In the budget-making sausage factory that led up to the proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2018, former Mayor Edward M. O’Brien had to make some difficult decisions on the revenue side. Though the State of Connecticut gave every indication the city would receive as much as $12 million in aid, there was already a rumbling from Hartford that its own fiscal house was in disorder and the state’s own budget plan could be in jeopardy.
Taking this into consideration, O’Brien opted to put $8 million into the budget in anticipated aid, figuring, along with indications in Hartford, that it was a somewhat safe middle ground. The administration had every reason to believe the money would be coming.
As events played out, however, the state’s own budget gaps resulted in a protracted budget debate not seen since the days before the income tax was imposed on state residents in 1992. Finally, last fall the state finalized – it thought – its budget (they are still fine-tuning). State money to municipalities was not coming to West Haven or any other town.
The state did send a lifeline, telling the administration it could petition for the funding as of the end of the fiscal year (June 1, 2018), but it would have to submit to a state review board. All then-Mayor O’Brien had to do was sign on the dotted line, and the state would get its funds, and its oversight. O’Brien never signed the paper, leaving it to the next administration.
But he didn’t do something else – he didn’t make any cuts to the city’s budget, either. He wasn’t going to pull the trigger on the state’s offer, leaving it to his successor to make the decision – and take the political heat. That is where we stand now on that $8 million.
The story doesn’t end there, however. While all the talk centered on a review board if the city took the state’s funds, another scenario was playing out. One of the major components of O’Brien’s fiscal restructuring plan was the elimination of the city’s 12-year-old operating deficit. That deficit, found in 2006 and ebbing and flowing over more than a decade, now stood at more than $17 million, in part thanks to the former administration’s inability to project revenues. Each of his four budgets was written in red ink.
In the last year of his administration, O’Brien was able to cobble together enough votes to have the City Council approve his bond issues for both West Haven High School and the deficit-elimination package. While the former is still unresolved, a $25 million bond was sold and the city’s deficit paid off.
Enter Mayor Rossi. On the day after her inauguration, she receives a letter from Office of Policy and Management Secretary Benjamin Barnes saying the city had been put under a Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB) in light of its bonding to pay off the debt. This was a recent action of the General Assembly, and gave the OMB the power to impose a panel if it saw fit. It did.
To our recollection, and that of several elected officials and political personae at no time was there ever an inkling such a decision would be made, and that the city would be, in effect, run by the State of Connecticut. Similar to the review board that ran the city from 1991-1994, the panel has veto power over all expenditures. The only power it lacks from the previous one is that to open employee contracts.
Rossi, two weeks ago, accused her predecessor of creating a fiscal situation that led to the review board, and, parenthetically, not alerting city officials that a bonding for the city debt would mean loss of local control. O’Brien rebutted last week, defending his actions and saying if the city were not to take the state’s $8 million offer, the gap would be Rossi’s not his. Meanwhile, there is the little problem of last year’s budget that seems to be written in red ink as well.
There are two problems here. O’Brien had to have known or should have known that bonding for the debt would put the review board in place. If he knew, he kept it from the public, if he didn’t? The taxpayers can make their own assessment. We find it hard to believe he didn’t know. He had to be talking and was talking with state officials.
So, we have two dilemmas both of O’Brien’s making: the city is under review for a bond deficit, and must face a budget gap of $8 million. That is the truth of the matter, and no excuse-making or attacks on the financial prowess of the current incumbent (as was done last week) changes that.