City Hall plans to make sure its next budget holds the line on municipal spending enough to freeze property taxes – if the Board of Education could do the same.
Of course, with rising costs and sinking state aid, nobody thinks that’s going to happen.
Finance Chairman Rich Miecznikowksi told a department head meeting Thursday that this is shaping up to be “the most difficult year” he’s ever seen and that “extreme measures” are going to be required to keep from clobbering taxpayers.
“We have to prepare for the absolute worst,” Mayor Art Ward said.
Officials said they do not plan any layoffs, but have put a hiring freeze in place. They may pare services, however, if that’s what it takes to hold the line.
“There are going to be many, many decisions that are not going to be popular,” Ward said. “There’s a price to everything we’re going to do here.”
The city’s budget, which applies to a fiscal year that begins each July, is adopted in May after several months of review. The current spending plan calls for shelling out $172 million, with education receiving the majority of the cash.
If the city succeeds in keeping its departmental requests low enough to allow a property tax freeze, that clearly turns up the heat on the Board of Education, which would be responsible for any increases that are needed.
What complicates the picture for the schools is that state education aid may be slashed by as much as $5 million in the coming year while another $5 million in spending is needed just to keep up with rising costs, officials said.
That presents an immediate “hole in the budget” of about 2 mills’ worth of a property tax hike, said city Comptroller Glenn Klocko.
Klocko said that situation is dire.
“This is the mother lode of all tight years,” Klocko said, particularly when cutbacks in road aid, local project money and other state grants are virtually assured.
Because there is no extra money, Klocko said that the budget reviews that are normally fairly complex are likely to be to be simple.
Salaries are rising by contractual amounts, he said, while spending for materials and supplies should remain exactly the same as this year’s totals.
Spending on projects and equipment will be limited to those necessary for public safety or to keep employees safe, Ward and Klocko said.
Miecznikowski said that as long as city leaders pull together as a team, “we’ll get through these difficult times.”
The finance leaders said that if it turns out there is more state money than expected, they can always revise the budget.
But, they said, it’s best to assume the bleak prognosis from state officials is going to prove true.
Ward said Bristol should do its budget “with the expectations of the worst, because we have to.”
He said the city ultimately doesn’t have much it can control.
“We’re completely at the mercy of both Congress and the state delegation,” the mayor said.
Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.
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