COVID-19 might be stopping most of daily life in and around West Haven and the nation, but there are certain things that can’t be stopped due to a pandemic. Complying with city charter-mandated language, Mayor Nancy R. Rossi released her Fiscal Year 2021 budget to the City Council – but with a twist.
Under Gov. Ned Lamont’s order to restrict public meetings of more than 50, the budget was published to the council electronically, and the meeting held online. Under the governor’s executive order remote meetings may be conducted to do public business.
Conversely, the City Council set the annual public hearing for the budget as a remote meeting, with the session to be conducted on-line, and questions allowed either by US Mail or through electronic means. See this document for the details of the public hearing process.
The meeting is set for Thursday, April 2 at 6 p.m. The public will get directions through the city’s electronic and social sites.
Almost lost in the COVID-19 morass is the budget itself. Rossi has proposed a total spending package of $165.2 million. The Board of Education budget will get a $900,000 increase from $93 million to $93.9 million under the plan, while the city-side expenditures will top $71.3 million, up from $69.9 in FY2020.
The plan calls for a mill rate of 37.48, an increase of .8 mills from the current 36.68. The increase is in keeping with the Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB) mandate the city increase its tax rate up to 40 mills over the lifespan of the current five-year plan. This is to avoid any shortfalls in liquidity that put the city under the state’s control three years ago.
In the last days of the administration of then-Mayor Edward M. O’Brien, the City Council bonded for more than $25 million in order to pay off a decade-old budgetary shortfall that had ballooned from $10.4 million to more than $16 million. The rest of the money was used for city projects.
Rossi entered office in December of 2017 and was summoned to Hartford to meet with the review board. Under a new state statute, municipalities that bonded to pay debts were put under state oversight. The requirement came as a surprise to city officials, unaware of the mandate.
The panel authorized state grants to cover gaps in city revenues until mill rates and other revenues can meet the expenses. Those revenues decrease with each year.
The city is currently under a Tier III status with the MARB, which allows it some autonomy in fiscal matters. The panel has threatened to put the city into Tier IV status, which would give the MARB absolute control over the budget and ability to nullify and restructure contracts. City officials have walked a fine line over the last three years to avoid the Tier IV threat.
“With state oversite and the designation of a Tier III status,” we are required to follow a very rigid, but necessary, fiscal plan to receive state assistance and attain a level of fiscal sustainability, which is our goal,” Rossi said in her accompanying statement. “This includes fiscal constraints which limit our ability to enhance services, even as we work diligently to achieve efficiencies, cost savings, and revenue enhancements throughout the administration.”
Rossi said the new budget eliminated a number of positions, while freezing most other vacant positions; reduced overtime; changed medical insurance coverage for all city employees to a State Partnership Plan, estimated to save $625,000; bid out the electric supplier contract, with a saving of $280,000; renegotiated leases on city facilities; and initiated a process to sell vacant properties. That last item comes with the sale of two former school buildings, Thompson and Stiles.
Following the April 2 public hearing, the City Council has a six-week window to review the expenses and revenues and make any changes to the plan. Ironically, it was the inability of the legislative body to make those changes that prompted a review of the charter itself. This might be the last budget accepted under the current plan. The new charter proposals go to the voters in November, and, if accepted, will completely rearrange the way the city does business.
Currently, however, in order to make any changes in the budget, the council needs a super-majority of nine of the 13 members to pass the alteration. After the six-week review, the council is mandated to pass the budget as a simple ordinance, requiring only a majority of seven.
That simple majority has been a high hurdle in the past, including the last few budget cycles. Under the charter, failure to pass the budget ordinance means the mayor’s proposed budget goes into effect by default with any alterations made by the council voided.