City Council moves to meet Review Board’s deadline
The City Council has its marching orders and it will be an interesting procession as we head toward June 7. That is the date the Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB) has given as a deadline for the council to complete a revised budget. The deadline was imposed last week during the regularly scheduled meeting of the state oversight panel.
At issue is a MARB-mandated $3 million cut from Mayor Nancy N. Rossi’s $162.86 million budget. The cut became necessary when an anticipated infusion of state cash to the tune of $9 million was slashed to $6 million by the same review board.
The city has a $9 million hole in this year’s budget precipitated by the state’s own problems passing budget for Fiscal Year 2019 that eliminated state grants to all 169 municipalities. Rossi had hoped for a fully funded grant this year, but MARB is attempting to force the city into “structural changes” heretofore unattainable. The $6 million guarantee means the city must find a way to fill the remaining gap.
The council, during its six-week review of Rossi’s budget plan, was unable to reach the nine-vote supermajority threshold the city charter requires for budget alterations. Despite weeks of debate and discussion, the council voted 8-5 to reject the plan, which under the charter implemented the mayor’s proposal by default.
The council, knowing MARB would reject the budget implementation and throw it back to the legislative body, has yet to set a mill rate. That has the benefit of jumping through legal hoops after July 1, when the budget is to take effect. Council members have expressed the hope the mill rate will be set once MARB gives its guidance.
Council Chairman Ron Quagliani has said publicly he hopes the rejection by the MARB will prod reluctant members of the council to vote for required changes. He wants desperately to keep the budget-making process a “local issue” rather than one governed by the state.
That specter, having the state take full control of the city’s budgets and finances, is now hovering over the entire process. In its April meeting and last week, MARB members let the council leaders know that failure to rein in the city’s spending and revenue practices will mean loss of local controls.
The state review board has threatened to push West Haven from a Tier III stressed municipality to a Tier IV. That move will mean, much like the state’s control from 1991-94, the review board will take over any and all matters regarding finances. It also means that as part of that attempt to impose the aforementioned “structural changes” the panel can open existing employee contracts and enumerate unnegotiable terms for new contracts.
The council is under the gun to pass necessary changes in the spending plan if it hopes to retain a modicum of local control. To do otherwise means the council becomes nothing more than a rubber stamp for any financial decisions made by MARB, while retaining only some legislative prerogatives.
The next week is possibly the most important in the city’s recent history. As we’ve said in previous editorials, city politicians have been reluctant to change the way the city does business since the financial downturn happened more than 30 years ago. Instead, the leadership of several administrations attempted patchwork remedies treating symptoms rather than the disease.
The current council and the Rossi administration are the office holders now that outside forces (the state’s own fiscal problems) have made continuing the status quo untenable. The can cannot be kicked down the road. It’s a dead end.
The taxpayers will most likely see a tax increase, while city services will be pared down – once again – to meet the new realities. June 7 is the day we find out whether the city has a chance to right its financial future, or continue to be mired in a rut of phony revenues and phony budgets.