This article originally appeared in Westport News.
The usual loud and public spats over state budget pain have taken an odd turn in Connecticut’s biggest cities.
Two weeks after the governor signed a budget into law, four months overdue, it’s becoming clear there’s a stealthy war on cities not named Hartford. While the capital city gained a restructuring worth at least $40 million, Bridgeport and New Haven stand to lose millions of dollars through various cuts in the new spending plan.
And yet, the mayors and other officials in those shoreline cities have kept their heads down and their voices low as they sort through the carnage.
“I’m glad we got a budget, but I have to tell you that it hurts,” Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim said in a low-key Nov. 3 news conference aimed largely at opposing a library referendum. “It’s a better product than the interim budget was. We’ll dig out of this locally.”
It hurts? We’ll dig out? Where’s the fire-and-brimstone Ganim we might have expected? Bridgeport could be short by $6 million this year alone, probably more, maybe less, depending on how we count and on whether the General Assembly fixes some errors it made in adopting the 2017-19 budget.
New Haven could come up short by $5.9 million or more, compared with spending in the year that ended June 30. But Mayor Toni Harp, who previously headed the Legislature’s spending committee and prefers to work behind the scenes, has said little if anything publicly. One source said that city’s delegation and municipal officials have been told point-blank, keep your mouths shut, it could have been a lot worse.
The hit to cities goes beyond those millions of dollars in municipal aid cuts. For example, a cut in the earned-income tax credit, for working poor families, is likely to reduce the amount of cash going to Bridgeport households by about $2.4 million and the amount in New Haven by $1.7 million. That’s not state aid to city halls, but it certainly affects the economies of those cities.
Also, when the state cuts back on social services and other agency spending — which could happen to the tune of about $100 million this year — a lot of that hits the biggest cities hardest, in mental health, rental assistance, property tax credits and family intervention, for example. And the cities can’t just turn their backs.
“When you get cuts of those types of services, municipal officials will tell you that population still needs those services and the first place they go is the municipalities,” said George Rafael, director of government finance and research at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.
Yes, the state needs to cut spending, but this Stealthy War on Cities Not Named Hartford — the result of chaos and back-room horse trading — is the wrong economic path for the state. Connecticut needs to spend money to bring its cities into the 21st century urban American economy, as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recognized in his original budget proposal back in February.
Chew on this: The latest budget analysis shows that among 20 cities and towns that will see more state aid over the next two years, the biggest winner by far is Greenwich, at $838,5523. Greenwich!
Outrage remains muted in part because, as Ganim said, it could have been worse. The budget adopted in September by Republicans (read: non-urban lawmakers), which was vetoed by Malloy, cut far deeper in the two biggest cities, by many millions of dollars, than the final, bipartisan result. Likewise, Malloy’s executive order that kept the state open without a budget from July through October devastated cities.
Confusion is a great weapon in any war and there’s plenty of that here. First of all, the various parties haven’t sorted out all the numbers yet. And second, in two key areas — the motor vehicle property tax rebate program and rental assistance — lawmakers appear to have made errors in the bill language, which could be corrected this week. Until all that happens, no one wants to make waves.
“There are still interpretations that are being debated between the Executive and Legislative branch at the State, even with the governor signing the budget,” Michael Gormany, the acting New Haven city budget director, said in an email. “The City is continuing to assess various aspects of the state budget.”
As for the details, in the biggest state program for cities and towns, education cost-sharing, or ECS, the cities come out even — Bridgeport, at $181 million, and New Haven, at $154 million. In payments for non-taxable property, New Haven appears to lose $5.1 million, bringing it down to $42 million, while Bridgeport is flat at $9.8 million, a figure the city says is unfairly low.
The motor vehicle property tax rebate program is so much in flux that we can’t know how it will turn out, but in one version, Bridgeport loses $4.1 million.
Some of these cuts also hit Hartford, as the bailout mainly helps in debt restructuring, not operations, but the capital city obviously can’t complain.
Bridgeport, unlike Hartford and New Haven, has no lawmakers in the power group of top leaders that craft the budget every year behind closed doors. Bridgeport also has the problem that it adopted a budget and set a tax rate that assumed a $10 million state aid increase, which was half of Malloy’s plan and seemed reasonable at the time.
It isn’t far ahead of Hartford in its finances and New Haven has plenty of problems as well. In short, the Stealthy War on Cities Not Named Hartford could take a heavy future toll on the whole state.
This article originally appeared in Westport News.