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Bronin Balances Hartford’s Budget with Layoffs, Union Concessions, and Savings

Ryan Caron King
WNPR (file photo)

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin wants to close next year’s budget deficit by laying off 40 city employees, demanding millions in union concessions, draining every last dollar from the city’s rainy day fund, and not raising the tax rate. 

Earlier this year, Bronin went to the state capitol and sought state relief for the city’s problems. But he was rebuffed; the message was that he should try and fix the city’s problems before asking for help. So that’s what he’s doing, and this $557 million budget is something of a legitimacy test for the new mayor who campaigned on the premise that the city’s finances were a mess -- and that he could fix them.

But even once Bronin is done with this year’s budget and its $48.5 million deficit, next year’s budget will still face a huge hole. And he’s putting people on notice.

“We can’t keep doing this,” Bronin said. “We’re closing the gap we have with more sustainable savings than any administration has gotten in a long, long time. But we can’t get there without the state and the region starting to play a different role.”

The city's finances are in obvious trouble. A credit rating agency recently downgraded the city, citing "significant budget gaps." While its pension fund has a relatively decent amount of money, the mayor said the city's pension obligations are skyrocketing due to existing union contracts. Debt service on the city's borrowing is also about to increase, due to earlier agreements to defer big payments.

And it's not easy for the city to raise new cash. Bronin has ruled out increasing property taxes, saying it would further chase away small business. And most of the capital city's real estate grand list is exempt from property taxes.

So, with rising expenses and falling revenues, Bronin is starting to cut. His plan eliminates vacant positions and lays off 40 people; drastically reduces the amount of funding that outside organizations get from the city; eliminates city subsidies for parades and festivals; and changes some policing practices. Together, those savings could generate around $15 million, he said.

Bronin said the layoffs weren’t an easy call, especially since the city has just 65 percent of the employees it had in 2000.

“We did everything we could to minimize the number of layoffs, to minimize the impact on employees who serve this city -- some of whom live in this city,” Bronin said. “It is the hardest part about this process. But the size of the gap we had to fill left no way to close it without some cuts that will include layoffs.”

Bronin will also need to get about $15.5 million from union negotiations. The city’s unions have suggested they’d be willing to give anywhere between $8 million and $12 million, but the mayor has said that won’t be enough. Talks are ongoing.

Meanwhile, the city isn't cutting education funding -- but the mayor says that, due to declining enrollment, there will likely be some schools that either consolidate or close.

Interestingly, Bronin campaigned on the notion that using one-time revenue to balance the budget -- like selling a parking garage -- was a bad idea. But now he’s finding that he has few options, and he’s using that one-time revenue himself. Bronin said he’ll save $5 million by transferring a city park to its pension fund. And the rest of the gap will be filled by taking the last $11.5 million from the city’s reserve fund.

The difference, he said, is that prior administrations used the quick fixes to close anywhere from 70 to 100 percent of their deficits. Bronin said he’s only using it to fix about a third of his problem.

Meanwhile, the mayor said his long-term goal is to convince the state, its legislators, and his suburban neighbors that they can’t have a healthy capital city for free. Hartford just doesn’t have the money it needs to pay for itself.

“The city of Hartford can’t solve that problem on its own,” Bronin said. “Our tax base isn’t big enough. Our city isn’t big enough. Too much of our property is non-taxable and there are too many services required... We are going to do everything we can to build the support and the consensus around the state that the city of Hartford, first of all, is doing everything it can -- we’re doing everything we can here in the city of Hartford to get our own house in order. But we cannot do it alone.”

Bronin presented his proposed budget to reporters Monday before filing it with the city clerk on the condition that it not be publicly reported or discussed until 1:45 pm. The mayor’s proposal begins a month and half of negotiations with the city council, which has to adopt a budget by May 31.

Jeff Cohen started in newspapers in 2001 and joined Connecticut Public in 2010, where he worked as a reporter and fill-in host. In 2017, he was named news director. Then, in 2022, he became a senior enterprise reporter.

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