City Council’s budget fail means loss of local control
After six weeks of review of Mayor Nancy Rossi’s proposed budget, the City Council chose the worst option: it punted. Late in March, Mayor Rossi offered her proposed spending plan of 162.86 million. According to the charter, the council reviewed the plan, attempted to make changes, and, in the end, did nothing.
“Doing nothing” means the mayor’s original plan, unrevised, goes into effect on July 1 by charter. Of course, the city’s status as a Tier 3 distressed city means it is under the scrutiny of the Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB), which has the final say. MARB was brought into the picture by statute in 2017. West Haven became one of two municipalities under its scope because it and Hartford had to bond to pay off longstanding operational deficits.
While the bonds paid for the operational deficit up to last year, it did not include the current budget or the new one. Because of the state’s own budget problems last year, revenue expected from Hartford never materialized, creating a $9 million hole. Mayor Rossi’s own budget includes funds the state offered, but with strings attached.
That money, $8 million worth, is controlled by MARB, which sought “structural changes” in the way the city budgets, both revenue- and spending-wise. It wanted at least some changes in structure along with a long-term plan of bringing the city’s books in balance without extra help from Hartford. To prod things along, MARB told the city last week it would recommend about $6 million in those funds released for the current operation, while the rest would be for incurred deficits and expenses the review board itself will incur. Again, the board expects the city will balance its books over time, leaving about a $3 million shortfall.
The council took up the budget knowing the guidance of MARB and what was expected. While we understand the difficulties, we cannot understand the vote. Amending the budget takes a charter-mandated supermajority of nine on the 13-member council. That has always been, and was intended to be, a high bar. Over the last several years it has been a bar too high. There are discussions to change it in the ongoing charter revision discussions, but that doesn’t help the city in the here and now.
MARB was looking for the council to make changes, and it threatened to downgrade the city from Tier 3 to Tier 4. That means MARB would have the same controls it had in the early 1990s, including one it does not currently have under Tier 3 designation: opening of existing contracts. In order to get the city into compliance, MARB will make the cuts that council members were unable or unwilling to make and many more.
We expect that, despite the default implementation of the mayor’s budget, MARB will exercise its authority after July 1 to make the structural changes it wants. Those changes can include elimination of services, personnel and a raise in the mill rate, which the current budget leaves at 35.26.
Chairman of the Council Ronald Quagliani (D-at-large) said following the vote that it boiled down to philosophical differences. That may be the case, but we find it hard to fathom how an elected body faced with such decisions cannot find common ground. The council had to make cuts and changes or those cuts and changes would be made for them.
We’ve seen this show before. What the council has done is make itself a straw body. MARB will now become the de facto and de jure decision maker in the city. Its decisions will be felt across the board and in ways that many haven’t even contemplated.
West Haven’s residents no longer have representative government where it counts the most. The council, by its inability to do the hard job, has left it to unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats. Anything the council does for the next few years will be under the yay or nay of MARB.
Some are intimating the decision to default the budget now gives city leaders political cover for the hard decisions that will be made. We hope that cynical assessment is not catalyst for last week’s vote. If it were, it was a dereliction of duty.