With the economy continuing to falter and residents angry at the property tax hike proposed by the Board of Finance, Mayor Art Ward said Wednesday that additional cuts will be needed in the proposed spending plan slated for approval in a few weeks.
Ward told department heads they should submit “meaningful reductions” to their budgets by Monday.
The mayor also said he was freezing hiring, travel and overtime as much as possible for the remainder of the current fiscal year, which runs through the end of June.
Calling it “a major reconstruction of the budget,” city Comptroller Glenn Klocko said that the mayor is aiming to cut as much as $2.1 million from the approved spending plan in order to lower the mill rate hike by as much as a third.
To get there, Klocko said, “everyone, including education, has to feel the pain.”
Ward said that he’s heard from many people who are unhappy with the 6 percent property tax hike required to fund the $173 million budget that fiscal overseers approved last week. Combined with revaluation, most homeowners in town would owe an additional $200 or more unless cuts in the spending plan are made.
Ward said that “additional budget cuts are going to be necessary” to bring down the mill rate increase. But it doesn’t appear he would support layoffs or major reductions in services to get there.
It’s not clear whether a majority of the City Council and finance board would even go along with reductions that snatch money from the $101 million currently allocated to the schools for the next fiscal year. Education is in line, at the moment, for a 6.3 percent hike, an amount that educators said is sufficient to keep initiatives moving forward.
But Klocko said that when Ward asked him this week to lay out what it would take to cut enough to lower the tax hike by either .25 or .50 mills, he had no choice but to target the schools as well as the rest of the city government.
Klocko said he’s eyeing everything from putting off the purchase of every recommended police car to snatching extra money out of the Pine Lake ropes course fund.
“The cuts that are happening right now are thoughtless,” Klocko said. “They have no thought behind them.”
Unlike the cuts made during the budget season the past couple of months, there are no solid reasons behind the items that might get sliced away now, Klocko said, except that reductions are needed to lower the mill rate.
“I cut $2 from general government for every dollar from education” in the effort, Klocko said.
However, Ward is angling to have department heads weed through their budgets with more care during the next couple of days to see if there are places that could be cut without doing harm.
Klocko hailed the attempt.
“He is empowering the department heads to manage their budgets,” Klocko said. “I think it’s wonderful.”
Klocko said he’s ready to meet with every department head to go over the details in the hope of finding areas that make more sense to slice.
In addition to cutting allocations for next year, Ward told department heads to try to save every penny possible in this year’s budget.
“Every expense should be evaluated and prioritized, including the need for overtime,” the mayor told city supervisors. He said that except for emergency or contractually required overtime, all overtime “will require written justification to my office.”
The mayor also said that filling vacant positions is on hold pending his own review. He said “no new positions and no upgrades will be considered” at all for the time being.
“In addition, all staff conferences, seminars out-of state travel requiring any expenditure” have to be cancelled if the money can be refunded, Ward told department heads.
The city currently anticipates having about $900,000 left over at the end of this fiscal year, but it plans to use $500,000 of that money for economic development purposes. Bolstering the end-of-the-year surplus would provide more cash to get through next year, officials said.
Klocko said that the cuts are needed given the economic situation.
“We were bloated too long,” he said. “This is a correction and it’s necessary.”
“Things got out of hand and we’re going back. I just need to make sure these departments understand” that next year’s budgets are going to be tight as well, Klocko said.
“All of us need to make a concerted effort to improve the city’s financial position,” Ward said. “I’m optimistic that our efforts now will positively impact our future.”
Here's some more information from Klocko that I couldn't include in the story for the paper:
Klocko said that officials have taken note of the opposition in neighboring towns to proposed budget hikes and heard plenty from residents here who want deeper cuts to keep taxes down.
At the moment, the city’s proposed budget increase may be the highest in Hartford County, Klocko said, so it’s understandable that officials are eyeing reductions.
He said that it takes a $1,050,000 cut in the $173 million spending plan to cut the mill rate by .25. So cutting enough to lower the mill rate hike from 1.5 to 1 mills would require slicing $2.1 million from the budget that the finance board approved last week.
Klocko said that he figures that to cut ¼ of a mill, $300,000 should come from education and $750,000 from the rest of the city government.
To cut twice as much, he’s eyeing a $500,000 cut from the schools.
Of course, Klocko said, it’s not his decision. City councilors, the mayor and the finance board make the final decision.
He said that the millions cut from proposed spending during the preparation of the proposed budget were sliced away with some care to minimize the impact.
But now the cuts are being made simply to lower the bottom line, though he hopes to protect departments as much as possible.
Klocko said that he’s looking at a lower contingency fund, increased use of fund balance, some transfers from special funds, cutting equipment for the fire and public works departments, knocking out the purchase of police cruisers and more.
He called it “the toughest thing” he’s had to do since the 2001 recession, when other hard choices were forced on the city.
Klocko said the mayor sent out a memo by email to the departments about 3 this afternoon and “within five minutes, my phone was ringing off the wall” from department heads looking for help in paring their numbers.
The comptroller said that he plans to work with all of them and go over the ramifications of each cut so that officials can tell the mayor what it means to ax this budget line or reduce that one.
In the end, Klocko said, there will be a sort of “Chinese menu” for the mayor to review that lays out the possible cuts and how much each will save – and at what price to city services.
“It is monumental,” Klocko said.
Here's another copy of the press release from Mayor Ward (the same as the one posted earlier so if you read that you can skip this!):
In a prepared release, Mayor Arthur J. Ward addressed the need for further cuts to the 2008 – 2009 City budget.
“The budget process is always a challenge and this coming year is no exception. Additional budget cuts are going to be necessary for Fiscal Year 2008-2009”, said Mayor Ward.
With the downturn in the economy, prices rising in every sector of business and many Connecticut cities struggling to stay afloat, Mayor Ward is going back to the Department heads for another round of cuts. In a memo to City Department Heads, the Mayor stated, “Because you know what is truly needed to run your departments, I need your recommendations for cuts. Therefore, please provide to me your written recommendations for budget reductions by line item for your department no later than Monday, May 5, 2008. Please bear in mind that if you do not recommend meaningful reductions, reductions may be made for your department without your input.”
Ward went on to say, “I am also directing each of you to review spending for the remainder of this budget year. Every expense should be evaluated and prioritized, including the need for overtime. I recognize that some labor contracts require certain staffing levels, and that we must provide essential services. However, overtime, unless contractually obligated or for emergency operations, will require written justification to my office.”
Ward informed the Department heads that effective immediately, all requests to fill positions are on hold pending his review of the position being requested. Additionally, no new positions and no upgrades will be considered until further notice. In addition, all staff conferences, seminars out-of state travel requiring any expenditure (even if it has been previously approved and funded) must be cancelled if refundable.
In a move to keep spending at a minimum, the Mayor has called for anticipated over-expenditures in this fiscal year’s budget must be immediately communicated to my office and the Board of Finance prior to any overspending.
In conclusion, Mayor Ward said, “Throughout the year, but particularly during the budget process, we, as public employees, are under increased scrutiny. We must all continue to be diligent and professional as we are observed by the public and while we interact with the public; it is critical to the City’s image.
All of us need to make a concerted effort to improve the City’s financial position. I’m optimistic that our efforts now will positively impact our future."
Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.
Contact Steve Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org