By Josh LaBella
The $163.3 million budget passed in the early hours of the morning last Wednesday was unanimously voted down by the Municipal Accountability Review Board in a meeting in Hartford the following Thursday.
The members of the MARB took turns pointing out flaws in the budget, but their message was clear: it did not align with the city’s five-year plan approved the year before.
Julian Freund, the policy development coordinator for the MARB, summarized the budget to the board. He pointed out that none of the efficiencies they had suggested, which were supposed to have saved $1.2 million, were included.
Some members suggested that the MARB’s restructuring funds would be withheld if West Haven did not fulfill its role in the agreement.
Robert White, a member of the MARB, said the money the MARB was giving the city needed to go towards fixing the problem, not “kicking the can down the road.”
“This money needs to go to substantial structural changes,” said White. “Are we looking at fund balance or are we looking at five years out to see where you are?”
White told Mayor Nancy Rossi and Finance Director Frank Cieplinski they were taking a victory lap by not including a mill rate increase in the budget that they had agreed to implement.
“That is up to you,” said White. “I am not suggesting you need to raise taxes but I think the MARB needs to consider that in deciding how much to give you.”
The agency is set to give the city $6 million in state funds if it agrees with the plan.
MARB member Sal Luciano said West Haven could save $4 million by switching to the Partnership health care plan and that MARB had told Rossi that earlier in the year.
Chairman Melissa McCaw said measures were identified in the recovery plan the city presented to the board to “put yourself on stable footing.”
“We are a year later.” said McCaw. “We have continued to struggle with achieving compliance on a number of items that are spelled out in the contractual agreement. The Office of Policy Management has invested a significant amount of time in supporting the municipality in achieving the various goals. In the first budget after that recovery plan has been adopted, you are pulling back on a number of measures.”
McCaw said the city has removed the savings it was accountable to achieving, had an insufficient contingency and budget reserve fund and had an inadequate medical claims reserve.
“Again, the idea here is that West Haven is going to adopt and continue sound financial practices,” said McCaw. “So that, one day, we’re not under financial oversight.”
After the budget was rejected by the MARB, Rossi said it was the result of a “communication issue.”
“The board confirmed at the meeting they want the planned efficiency savings, OPEB Trust Fund, Health Care savings and an increased contingency included in the plan,” said Rossi. “The task of including these items will be pretty straight-forward and should not change the bottom line of the budget—the changes will be budget neutral.”
According to Rossi, many misstatements were made during the MARB meeting and she was given little time to respond. She also responded to allegations that not implementing a mill rate increase was intentional so she could blame an increase on the MARB.
“Not increasing the mill rate was based on the fact that the assumptions made last year had to be changed due to new information, increased grand list, increased positive general fund balance, additional cuts,” said Rossi. “Many residents and a few City Council members expressed concern over a tax increase, so given the changes in assumptions in the Five Year Plan listed above, we did everything we could not to put forth a tax increase.”
Rossi said the city will do its best to adjust the budget in a way that the MARB feels comfortable approving it.