The Meriden City Council Finance Committee met on Tuesday and made cuts to the city budget. This was necessitated by the citywide referendum that amassed 5,999 votes sending a strong message to cut taxes.
The Meriden City Council had approved a budget that called for a 4 percent tax increase (raising the property taxes on the average homeowner by $200 a year). At the Finance Committee meeting, a series of bipartisan resolutions and votes were made for budget cuts that will affect virtually all city departments totaling $1.4 million (reducing the mill rate increase by 25 percent — average property owners would now have a $150 annual increase.).
This was achieved by cutting some city department budgets ($250,000) through three employee furlough days, or asking department heads to reduce their budgets in other ways to reach the reduction targets. The committee also voted for other cuts to the budget as well including cuts for all non-city sponsored special events: St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Meriden Puerto Rican Festival, and $17,000 cut to the Daffodil Festival.
Almost all the votes for the cuts were unanimous with the majority and minority parties agreeing. The police department, addressing $250,000 in cuts, drew the most scrutiny from Finance Committee members and the mayor. Police Chief Jeff Cossette explained the rationale for the areas he planned to cut that included “Pro-Active Assignments: School Resource Officers, Meriden Green officer, South Meriden officer, Washington Park officer, and reduction in Neighborhood Initiative Officers. The mayor and several councilors expressed concerns over these police department changes and asked the chief to be creative in avoiding these cuts.
Make no mistake about it — these cuts will affect our community. But in the end, the vote was to keep the cuts as proposed.
The only two areas of non-bipartisanship were the legal secretary in the law department and the amount of money to be put into the unfunded pension liability account. Both these issues had been hotly debated throughout the budget process.
In the case of the legal secretary, Council Chairman Brian Daniels pointed out that it would be likely that this position cut would result in additional costs to the city as outside counsel would need to be used to handle the workload. The majority prevailed 4-1 against the cut, with Deputy Finance Chair Walter Shamock joining with the majority councilors.
The second area of disagreement was the amount of funding to be spent for the city’s pension obligations. Over the past decade, the city has developed an accounting standard that began to address the longstanding underfunding of the city’s pension obligations (this is the same problem that the state of Connecticut has failed to address over the past two decades, resulting in a major financial mess). The majority party wanted to keep the pension funding the same as in previous years at $400,000. The opposition party wanted to reduce that by $200,000 (thereby kicking the can down the road for future taxpayers to fund).
Chairman Daniels pointed out that because of this disciplined approach used over the past decade, the city’s unfunded pension obligation has been reduced from $200 million to $80 million, resulting in an improved bond rating and a more secure fiscal status for the city. The final committee vote was 3-2 against the resolution to cut the pension funding. The Finance Committee vote now goes to the full city council for a final vote. The mayor then has five days to use his line item veto. If the mayor issues any line item vetoes, it would take eight council votes to override them. The council then makes a final budget vote and sets the mill rate for 2018-2019.
This process demonstrates the extremely difficult fiscal times we are in. Last fiscal year, the state reduced Meriden’s municipal aid funding by $2.3 million after our budget was enacted, resulting in over a $2 million deficit for the city. Future prospects for state funding aren’t any better. We are in for a long, tough slough. I do not envy any public official who must operate in this fiscal climate when hard decisions and cuts to services are inevitable.
Fortunately, on the plus side, Meriden has positioned itself well for the future with a progressive investment strategy for our infrastructure including flood control, downtown development, and schools that should pay dividends for years to come.
Michael S. Rohde is a former mayor and city councilor of Meriden.