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Facing $49 Million Hole, Hartford's Bronin Won't Rule Out Bankruptcy

Jeff Cohen
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin's budget needs serious state help to work.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has released his $612.9 million budget proposal to the City Council, one that avoids layoffs, cuts funding to most community organizations, assumes more labor concessions, understaffs departments, and still has a $49 million hole.

But there's no more to cut, Bronin said, without compromising the city. 

"You can’t cut millions of dollars out of the budget that we've proposed without cutting into essential services, basic services that a city has an obligation to deliver," he said at a Monday morning press briefing.

As he has since he took office, Hartford’s mayor said the capital city has a structural problem it can't fix alone. Because the city is home to so many tax-exempt properties -- state buildings, non-profits, schools, and hospitals -- its tax base is small. In fact, Hartford has less taxable property than suburban West Hartford. 

The city's largest employers have pledged $50 million over five years to help Hartford out. But that's not nearly enough, and Bronin is asking the state for millions more. The governor’s proposed budget gives the city roughly $35 million increase; that would be a start. But without closing the $49 million gap, Bronin said no option is off the table -- not even bankruptcy.

"If the legislature can't summon the will to work in partnership with us to help get the capital city of Connecticut on a path to fiscal stability and sustainability, we are not in a position to rule anything out," Bronin said.

In a recent interview, Democratic House Majority Leader Matt Ritter said that the city would most likely come out ahead in the budget -- though not without some major constraints associated with any new state aid.

"There will be requirements and strings attached to that, so that these things do not come back up in, say, five or 10 years...bonding caps, no question. There may be a spending cap on the city," Ritter told WNPR last week.

That said, the state has months to go before it approves a budget, and Hartford needs to get working on its own numbers.

The city began the budget process with a projected $65 million gap. Bronin said that most of the increase in the budget are attributable to either rising fixed costs or costs over which the city doesn't have unilateral authority.

He was able to shrink that gap to $49 million with mix of trims, including assuming $4 million in labor concessions. That's not proven entirely successful so far. The current budget includes $16 million in labor concessions; to date, he’s only gotten $4 million from one union, the firefighters.

While the mayor isn't proposing cuts for emergency shelters and various youth programs, he is eliminating $800,000 in funding for several community organizations including Upper Albany Block By Block, Camp Courant, and the Greater Hartford Arts Council -- even the carousel at Bushnell Park gets a cut.

"These are all things that we think do valuable work," Bronin said. "These are all cuts that we think are going to be difficult for these organizations to bear. But as we are delivering what is truly, we believe, a bare bones city budget, we have to step back from a lot of things that we think are vitally important."

As the mayor does his work, he's also waiting on the state to figure out how it will help Hartford -- if at all. Efforts to reach leaders on the city council were unsuccessful. The city has until May 31 to pass a budget.

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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