2013 Municipal Budget Reality: Paying For Stewart’s Fiscal Irresponsibility

Mayor Tim O’Brien  delivered his first municipal budget proposal to the Common Council this week.  To the surprise of critics who always tag O’Brien as one of the  free-spending, tax-hiking liberals, the new mayor’s efforts at budget balancing exceeded the usual austerity measures used to hold the line on taxes and keep essential services going.

In broad terms, this unfinished blueprint for the year that begins July 1 calls for departmental consolidations, the elimination of 130 positions and measures to enhance revenues that leave the mill rate as is.  Instead of turning a deaf ear to the needs of the schools, however, it adds local funds to the Board of Education and leaves public safety alone

The severity of the budget is a reflection of O’Brien meeting the first obligation of an elected official — telling the truth to the people you represent. 
O’Brien is putting a halt to the “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul” methods of  Timothy Stewart, the four-term mayor, who over several fiscal years increased obligations on the city and relied on one-time fixes that ultimately put the budget  in a deep hole six months into the current fiscal year. The Common Council majority, in often bitter exchanges, stood in the way of the former Mayor’s budget maneuverings but ultimately approved prior budgets that met a June deadline.
Last winter O’Brien’s financial review team and independent auditors identified a $10 million gap for the current year that had to be addressed immediately.  It took another one-time fix of using Water Department reserves — the only option O’Brien could find to avoid a local government shutdown in the early months of the new administration.  
Balancing the municipal budget and delivering quality services to residents are a daunting enough task in 2012 because of the dependence on a regressive property tax structure, static state aid and the retreat of the federal government in its support to communities .  New Britain’s problems have been compounded by the fiscally irresponsible actions of the Stewart administration and his failure to be transparent when it came to spending tax dollars.  Unfortunately, O’Brien’s first budget proposal is paying for the sins of his predecessor. The notes are being called in on unrealized sales of development property and kicking the city’s financial obligations down the road.
With a final budget due to be passed in June there is plenty of work ahead for the Mayor and the Common Council to avert cuts and jobs losses of frontline, direct service employees.

Losing 130 municipal positions is unacceptable if the current level of services is to be maintained.

Good faith bargaining, finding additional savings, alternatives to the way the city pays for health insurance and energy and modernizing City Hall operations all will be needed to help the city get through a fiscal crisis that will persist into 2013 fiscal year and beyond.

Time for Dialogue: Superintendent Pick Will Meet With Community Groups In May Visit

New Britain Superintendent-in-waiting Kelt Cooper will visit New Britain next month to meet with school officials and others, including members of the Latino and African American communities.

Leaders of those groups said a dialogue with Cooper is being planned for next month at last week’s meeting of the Democratic Town Committee.  The May visit comes  in the aftermath of a favorable report from four Board of Education members after their site visit to Del Rio, Texas where Cooper is the Superintendent of Schools.  The new Superintendent’s appointment is set to begin on July 1. Cooper, one of three finalists who met with the public on February 28th, was appointed on a 6 to 4 vote on February 29th, breaking a five to five deadlock at an afternoon meeting of the Board of Education.

News of a community dialogue ahead of Cooper’s official arrival is welcome news after controversy erupted at the end of the search. The imbroglio featured an  inflammatory letter to Mayor O’Brien from BOE member and former Republican Town Chair Paul Carver alleging the Mayor’s office tried to interfere with a closed-door BOE meeting.  O’Brien had made a request to the BOE to discuss the status of the superintendent search.

Unexpected concern over Cooper’s candidacy arose at the end of the search process when reports surfaced about his 2009 enforcement of a residency law in Del Rio that resulted in the inappropriate expulsion of 180 children — children whose families subsequently proved their right to attend school in the Texas border town.

A consultant’s report failed to mention the residency enforcement issue, leaving some school board members and many people involved in the search process unaware of an issue that drew national headlines when it occurred and drew the involvement of legal aid attorneys in the Del Rio area.  The consultant told the New Britain Herald in early March that the enforcement action was irrelevant to New Britain’s search and was only shared verbally  in mid-February as the process entered the home stretch.

Cooper, 51, rose to the top of the finalist list with two others based on accomplishments with English Language Learners and extensive experience in diverse districts in Arizona and Texas.  In addition to leading the San Felipe Del Rio District of 10,400 students, he previously was superintendent of the Nogales, Arizona Schools with 6,400 students. Cooper holds a B.A. in anthropology, a Master of Art degree in educational administration and an ABD/PhD without a dissertation, all from New Mexico State University.