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.