For the second time in recent history, the City of West Haven finds itself under the scrutiny of a financial review board with supernumerary powers over most issues that deal with the budget and revenue. The Municipal Accountability Review Board was established under Section 376 of Public Act 17-2 last year by the General Assembly.
The states purpose is for “providing technical, financial and other assistance and related accountability for municipalities experiencing various levels of fiscal distress.” But its decision last year to bond $25 million to pay off the more than $17 million operating deficit, the city was put under the board by Office of Policy and Management Secretary Benjamin Barnes. Only two cities are under the new board, Hartford being the other.
The city was notified of the decision on the second day Mayor Nancy R. Rossi had in office, and has already taken up the city’s situation in a meeting Jan. 11. The next meeting is today in Hartford. Mayor Rossi plans to attend.
The board, made of 11 members, including Barnes as chairman and State Treasurer Denise Nappier as co-chairman, has, according to its website, “a municipal finance director, a municipal bond or bankruptcy attorney, a town manager, a member having significant experience representing organized labor from a list of three recommendations by AFSCME, a member having significant experience as a teacher or representing a teacher’s organization selected from a list of three joint recommendations by CEA and AFT-CT, one member appointed by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, one member appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, one member appointed by the Minority Leader of the Senate and one member appointed by the Minority Leader of the house of Representatives, each of whom shall have experience in business, finance or municipal management.”
The review board comes just as the city is preparing its budget for Fiscal Year 2019 that begins July 1. Rossi must present the proposal to the City Council in a special session on March 15 under city charter requirements.
Under the current status, while the City Council will pass the final budget ordinance May while doing its annual review following Rossi’s budget address, the reality is the MARB will have control of the process by looking over the proposal, offering changes and approving the mill rate. The council’s vote to approve the budget will be pro forma.
Asked if the new layer of scrutiny has made the process any more difficult, Rossi said things might have to be moved up a bit.
“The budget will have to be completed a couple weeks earlier than usual so it can be presented to the MARB on March 1, and then presented to the City Council by March 15 as outlined in the charter,” she said.
As far as the budget is concerned, in her column this week (see page 7), Rossi said taxpayers should expect a no-frills spending plan.
“I plan on presenting an honest and bare bones budget to the MARB and City Council that will fund the city’s essential services for our residents while making some very tough but necessary and long overdue reductions — all without raising taxes on our already overtaxed residents,” she wrote.
In a statement two weeks ago, Rossi said she welcomes the oversight of the MARB as it will give her the guidance she needs to make the tough decisions necessary this year. That didn’t mean she didn’t miss the opportunity to place the blame squarely on her predecessor.
In a follow-up questions sent to her via email this week, Rossi said blame the city is under the state review panel should be placed on former Mayor Edward M. O’Brien.
“The MARB oversight in West Haven was a direct result of the former mayor mismanaging his budgets, running annual deficits and the bonding in November in his last month in office,” she said. “Not only did he borrow $17 million for cumulative deficits through 2016, he ran another deficit ($1 million) in fiscal year 2017 that ended on June 30, 2017. Fiscal year 2017 is currently being audited and the deficit could rise. Being under the MARB oversight will give West Haven a temporary opportunity to apply for $8 million for two years until the budget issues are corrected. Former Mayor O’Brien brags that he fought for the extra $8 million that we can apply for but the problem is he had to take the city to the brink of bankruptcy to qualify—it’s really sad.”
This is the second time Rossi has blamed O’Brien for fiscal mismanagement. He responded last week in a column to the Voice, saying that Rossi’s decisions concerning the budget and the removal of the deficit are hers alone. Should she decide not to take the $8 million from the state, the budget gap is on her and is hers to fix.