Bronin Warns Of Layoffs, Deep Cuts As Hartford Struggles Financially

 Bronin Warns Of Layoffs, Deep Cuts As Hartford Struggles Financially

Hartford Courant, March 15, 2016

By Jenna Carlesso and Vanessa de la Torre

HARTFORD — The city's fiscal outlook is "dire," and Hartford should brace for layoffs and deep cuts as it struggles to put its financial house in order, Mayor Luke Bronin said in a sobering state of city address Monday. "Today we are in a crisis and we cannot avoid it, we cannot ignore it and we cannot solve it unless we are all willing to make very difficult, very painful decisions," Bronin said. "There must be cuts in services and there will be layoffs; difficult cuts that no one wants to make, and that in better times we wouldn't even contemplate. Cuts in services that are important. Not cutting fat, but sacrificing things that really matter."

Bronin's blunt announcement came after weeks of hinting that Hartford would have to take dramatic steps to close its budget gaps. Officials have estimated a $9 million shortfall this year and a more than $30 million deficit next year. Those steps include the possibility of drafting state legislation that would allow the city to reopen union negotiations.

"There must be significant changes in labor contracts even with those layoffs," Bronin said Monday, "because we have no choice." When the fiscal year ends on June 30, the city will have used almost half its reserves to close the current gap, he said. And the problem will only get worse. Hartford's debt service will rise to nearly $30 million next year, up from $10 million this year, Bronin said.

By 2019, it will be close to $50 million. Bronin blamed previous city leadership, noting that former mayors raised the tax rate and relied on "one-time revenues," like selling city-owned parking garages or raiding employee benefit accounts. He also took a swing at the minor league ballpark under construction north of downtown. Hartford, he said, needs real economic growth — "not baseball stadiums."

He called on the state to offer more support to its capital city, and for Greater Hartford to move beyond talk of regionalism and start "regionalizing." Bronin said he'll also explore decreasing the city's pension contributions and seeking funds from tax-exempt institutions such as colleges and hospitals. The city's pension contribution this year is $40 million, up from about $10 million in 2010.

"Without painful changes, we will soon face deficits so big that even eliminating our entire police department and our entire fire department would not close the gap," Bronin said. "We're like a household that's taken out a second mortgage, maxed out the credit cards, and borrowed money from family and friends to keep up with the payments." "For too long, Hartford failed to make tough choices," he said. "Past administrations borrowed liberally. To make things easier in the short run, they refinanced debt, pushing payments into the future. The bill is now coming due."

mayor praised for addressing issues back to top

When Bronin finished his speech, a hush fell over council chambers at city hall. Tepid applause followed.

"There was certainly a somber tone, for good reason," said Julio Concepcion, the council's majority leader. "I think the financial situation in the city is dire, and I think that the mayor addressed it." Marc DiBella, chairman of Hartford's Democratic town committee, noted that the talk differed sharply from former Mayor Pedro Segarra's assessment of Hartford. "Last year it was sunshine and rainbows," he said. "So clearly, a different tone tonight."

"This is time to talk honestly about the challenges we face," Bronin said afterward. "This is not a time to hide the scale of our challenges. If we're going to achieve successes that matter in the long run we need to build them on a sound foundation, and right now our financial foundation has cracked."

Although his mayoral campaign called for improving neighborhood schools, Bronin did not touch on Hartford's educational system in his address. City school officials, dealing with their own budget reckoning, have estimated a gap of roughly $15 million for the coming year.

Teachers are preparing for cuts, and "everyone's getting pummeled," school board Chairman Richard Wareing said recently. Schools spokesman Pedro Zayas said Monday night: "Given the dwindling resources and bleak financial projections for city and state coffers, we are facing some very difficult decisions that will impact every school and every administrative office at Hartford Public Schools."

Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez is expected to present her education budget on April 5. Bronin's budget is due out later in April. Rep. Angel Arce, D-Hartford, praised Bronin's directness.

"It's the first time that I've seen a mayor that tells the public, 'We have a problem,'" he said. "It's the first time I've seen a mayor call the Hartford delegation to his office to say, 'We got a problem and we need help.' That's how you move the city forward."

Arce said the state is hampered by its own fiscal woes, but lawmakers would be open to considering legislation. He said he would support a bill to reopen the union negotiations. "I think it's a good thing," Arce said. "I'm a union person. I love my unions, but you know what, we've got to compromise. It's not about the unions, it's not about the mayor. It's about a city in crisis, and if we don't fix this problem … people are going to leave this city and we're going to end up with a ghost town."

Sgt. Richard Holton, president of the Hartford Police Union, pointed out that members have made concessions in recent years, including increased health-care contributions and changes to the pension plan designed to save the city money. "To seek state legislation to reopen contracts — I think that should be the last option, not the first option," Holton said.

"The city has to be responsible and recognize that there's been benefits that have been given up in the past to get certain benefits now, and to renege on any type of commitment that they've had, I think is disingenuous." Holton suggested that officials examine the pay scales of the city's top executives. "Maybe they should look at that, and first cut some of those down," he said.

Council President Thomas "TJ" Clarke II said administrative salaries will be considered. He said his main goal is to prevent Hartford residents from being laid off. "We really need to take an aggressive look at how top heavy the city is, and … if we can sustain some of those losses within the top administrative parts of our city departments," he said.