“A budget is a moral document.” This phrase is often heard during budget season from both sides of the aisle to uphold their personal values. The municipal operating budget is the cost of running a city that includes payment for employees, schools, and other services. Asking residents to pay property taxes requires public trust.
While disagreeing about what to spend is as American as apple pie, we need to be honest about Hamden’s true costs and financial outlook. Moreover, the message that a mayor conveys to a council of state must not contradict the message conveyed to voters.
Residents of Hamden have been watching council meetings on Zoom since mid-March, the typical time when mayors hand their budgets to council. This year’s budget was delivered late, as Governor Ned Lamont’s Executive Order 7I allows, resulting in a compressed budget season in an already difficult year for Hamden.
Our expenses were expected to increase significantly, with our pension and debt payments increasing by $8 million combined. After adding contractual salary increases, Mayor Curtis Leng introduced a budget with an $11 million increase in spending. He increased the property tax revenue line by $5.5 million and added a fictional revenue stream of $5.1 million in COVID grants. Additional expenses were covered by cost avoidance measures, including $7 million from debt restructuring. It quickly became apparent that the main budget items to watch would be COVID revenue, debt restructuring, and the inevitable tax hike.
Members of our state legislative delegation were quoted in the April 17, 2020 New Haven Independent as describing the $5.1 million COVID revenue stream as speculative, ambitious and imaginary. Nonetheless, a month after his first presentation to Council, Mayor Leng proposed a budget amendment that increased hypothetical COVID revenue to $7 million and kept taxes flat for the year. Mayor Leng’s budget amendment was largely ignored. The problem, however, persisted. The spending cuts the Council would have had to make to overcome outrageous revenue projections and cost avoidance lines, while competing with the mayor’s proposed mill rate, was unachievable. In the end, the Board settled on a revenue assumption of $6 million for COVID, which still remains an unlikely source of revenue.
Hamden’s debt service was expected to rise again by $4 million in fiscal 2021, leading Mayor Leng to attempt another debt restructuring, repeating a plan from two years ago. . A cost avoidance of $7 million would again extend the term of our debt. Shortly after the budget proposal, Hamden’s financial advisors, disagreeing with Mayor Leng, asked the council to fund the full debt servicing costs and save the debt restructuring for the next issue. urgent, restoring the fund balance, which should become negative after the fiscal year. Year 2020. The proposal is to fully fund debt service and use cost avoidance to create a surplus that will fund the fund balance, pending a balanced budget at the end of fiscal year 2021. This shifts our debt into the future with greater debt service payments.
The elimination of debt restructuring cost avoidance forced the Board to make deep cuts and a steep increase in the mill rate during a global pandemic and economic crisis. Mayor Leng then took to Facebook to express his outrage: “I vetoed the budget approved by Council yesterday because it eliminated important services that our residents rely on, such as community policing. , bulk garbage pickup and key education programs – all while raising taxes a lot. “Council was forced to override the mayor’s veto, increasing our rate per mile from 48.86 to 51.98. Hamden’s high interest rate and $2 billion in debt isn’t being solved by a mayor who puts more effort into appearances than solving our problems.
In documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act, the Municipal Finance Advisory Commission (MFAC) requested information about Hamden’s financial situation. Mayor Leng made two similar presentations to the Commission. In these presentations, Mayor Leng hailed the increased mileage rate and service cuts as solutions to our budget challenges, while signaling to constituents that lost services and the high mileage rate are not what has proposed. Leng has now taken credit for the work of the Council which he has fought at every turn. The MFAC commissioners rightly asked about “residents’ commitment to addressing the city’s tax issues.” This is where the problem lies. How can the people of Hamden be willing to address a problem that is not accurately described or publicly acknowledged by the mayor?
The December 9, 2020 presentation to the MFAC lists debt restructuring as one of the spending savings to balance the FY21 budget. The unrealistic COVID revenue assumption killed the fund balance restoration plan. Ironically, the most honest aspect of Leng’s presentation is the image of an iceberg used in the background of his report, a Freudian slip that acknowledges that 90% of Hamden’s financial troubles lie beneath the surface.
Lauren Garrett is Co-Chair of the Issues Committee of the Democratic Town of Hamden Committee.