Threats by the state’s review panel to put West Haven into its most stringent category of oversight, and virtually taking over city finances, came a step closer to reality last week with its monthly meeting in Hartford last week. The Municipal Accountability Review Board discussed the move from Tier III to Tier IV status for the city if changes to the proposed five-year plan are not implemented – and soon.
Mayor Nancy Rossi’s administration has been struggling to put together a five-year plan of action that will allow the city to propose and maintain balanced budgets and a healthy financial outlook. But, the devil has been in the details in discussions with MARB officials and city.
Rossi said this week, her most recent proposal to MARB hit a roadblock due to concerns over the costs of health care.
“The most recent proposal to the Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB) was submitted on Sept. 14,” Rossi said. “The five-year plan is detailed and comprehensive addressing revenue, spending, pensions, other post-employment benefits (OPEB) and debt service.”
Rossi said most of the opposition came in the form of healthcare costs and projections of those costs.
“The MARB is not yet completely comfortable with the health care costs included in the plan and we are currently reconciling all the projected healthcare costs,” she said.
At this point she took the opportunity to give a reminder this is not a problem caused by her administration, 10 months into its first year.
“The MARB also knows West Haven’s history with reckless spending and witnessed how the (Edward) O’Brien administration almost bankrupted the city by more than doubling the operating unassigned general fund deficit in four years,” she said. “The deficit grew from $7.8 million to $18.1 million. I think they are becoming more confident that reckless spending and deficits will not happen under my administration’s watch. We have shown that we are willing to make tough decisions and sacrifice to get out of this mess.”
In the short-term Rossi said the state panel is watching the city as it looks to pare costs, and streamline operations.
“The MARB has watched my administration drastically cut costs, and along with the City Council, pass a responsible and balanced budget (With the MARB restructuring funds)–that was a good start. We have a long road ahead of us, but the five-year plan gives us the road map to financial health and security. We will adjust the plan every year as we see results from reorganizing how we do business and add economic development with large projects and small business. Once people realize that West Haven is responsible and growing economically, we will attract more business,” she said.
Some city officials behind the scenes are worried the review board is eyeing a Tier IV status in order to bypass the messiness that sometimes comes with representative governments. Rossi is not yet ready to make that assessment, and praised the group for its interest in the city.
“The MARB members have a wide range of expertise and experience, and they want what we all do, a better West Haven. West Haven’s long history of fiscal woes and poor fiscal management does not help us here. I have a lot of respect for the MARB members and appreciate what each one brings to the table,” she said.
While she understands their concerns, working with the MARB has not been without its bumps in the road.
“My frustration is that the people of West Haven elected me to fix this problem, and I will, but the MARB should give us some time so we can prove to them that we are up to the task. TierIV would not be good for West Haven—it would take local decision-making out of the equation. However, with that said, I do welcome their input and look forward to working with the MARB in their current capacity.”
If the city is moved into Tier IV status, the result would be almost complete takeover by state officials of city government, a move Rossi and other elected officials are trying to avoid.
“Unfortunately, history has shown us when the state takes over a municipality; you end up with higher taxes. In the early 1990’s when West Haven had a state board in charge, the property taxes doubled. I am not sure if that would happen, but again, we are on the right path and it is my hope that the MARB will pass the five-year plan and leave us in Tier III,” she said. “After some time, they will see the decisions that we have made, and will continue to make, that will put West Haven on the path to a financially responsible and healthy community.”