WETHERSFIELD - Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin made his Wethersfield stop last night, speaking before a sizable crowd at Town Hall and detailing the roots of Hartford’s financial woes, as well as state-driven solutions that he feels can get the Capitol city, as well as the Connecticut economy as a whole, back to a state of steady growth.
Bronin’s proposals-that the legislature push for full funding under the state’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program, possibly look to redirect sales tax revenue, and that towns pursue smaller, shorter term inter municipal cost sharing initiatives-were met by some with skepticism, while others embraced his rallying cry for a Hartford-driven structure for economic growth.
The city currently faces a $50 million budget deficit, which is projected to grow to $70 million, and then $90 million, in coming years.
One thing virtually all of those in attendance agreed on, however, was that Wethersfield property tax revenue should not be directed to Hartford.
“I’m not coming here and asking Wethersfield to write a check, but as we look at a state that’s in fiscal crisis, I think that crisis should make us have a conversation to see if there are ways to let all communities becomes less dependent on the property tax,” Bronin told the room-filled to standing room only.
That impact is felt across the state-particularly where a lot state owned property or nonprofits reside-Bronin said.
As for Wethersfield, 1 in 4 residents work in Hartford, Bronin said.
“Our communities are still very tied together,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s important to talk about the shared challenges, and we have some big ones-as a state, and we have some massive ones in the city of Hartford.”
Among those challenges is tax exempt property-such as the former waste burning facility, the airport, Hartford Hospital, and a number of universities.
While they are all assets to the city, more than half of Hartford’s property is tax exempt, leaving local government to levy a greater burden on residents and businesses, Bronin said.
Hartford has the highest Mill Rate in the state, at 74.
“You have a city that’s many times the size of those suburbs and with different obligations-because of poverty [and other factors]-but less taxable property,” Bronin said. “That’s resulted in this situation where we have to fight with our hands tied behind our backs.”
And there’s also, admittedly, the city’s missteps-such as investing in the controversial stadium project, and negotiating generous pension payouts-Bronin said.
Since then, the city has done everything from induce widespread cuts-to senior utilized dial a ride services, senior center and library programs, and city social services-to undergoing a period of heavier taxation, all of which amounts to temporary fixes at best, he said.
The city is also in the process of renegotiating its union contracts.
But long term solutions will need to be structural, Bronin said. Fixes in the area of PILOT funding, for starters, would go a long way, he said.
Collectively, municipalities throughout Connecticut lose $700 million on tax exempt hospitals, universities, and other nonprofits, according to the 2016 Candidate Bulletin Report authored by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, (CCM). Bronin is listed among the directors involved with compiling the information.
Although the formula calls for a 77 percent reimbursement, CCM’s 2016 estimates were closer to 29 percent, the report said.
“If we do that, that gets us almost all the way toward a solution,” Bronin said. “If we did that statewide, it’d help Wethersfield because you have some significant state presence here.”
But when Bronin raised the issue before an audience in Rocky Hill, Senator Paul Doyle and State Representative Tony Guerrera-both of whom attended the Wethersfield discussion as well-said that the state’s own fiscal crisis would make retaining current levels of state aid a challenge, and that they were less than optimistic in the possibility of finding additional revenue for PILOT.
A couple of weeks ago, Governor Malloy’s office announced statewide reductions in Education Cost Sharing (ECS) funding for the current year, which means that municipalities will have to adjust budgets they passed in May to make up for the shortfalls.
Wethersfield saw $152,000 taken out of the $9.5 million it was projected to get in ECS.
“That’s [fully funding PILOT] a real challenge when the state is facing its fiscal crisis,” Bronin said. “I’m not gonna pretend I have all the answers, but at the end of the day, I feel like it’s the first step in getting our state healthy again.”
The problem is that while the funding stream would be “diluted”, more PILOT money still means more revenue from taxpayers throughout the state as a whole, said Wethersfield resident Tom Mazzarella, who grew up in Hartford.
“We have to recognize, the state gets its money from all the taxpayers, so inevitably, we the citizens, are going to participate in bailing out Hartford, and I don’t think that’s right,” he said.
But Hartford’s financial issues-particularly in the event of a job exodus or the creditor impact of a bankruptcy-will be felt throughout the region and state, said Bronin, who has been advocating for an “urban core”-centered approach that revitalized states like Massachusetts.
Town resident David Caruk expressed both sympathy for Hartford, and concern for its ability to pay the last of two quarterly MDC sewer bills for the 2017 fiscal year. The MDC drew criticism weeks ago for passing a reserve plan that would charge its 7 other member towns to make up the difference, should Hartford be unable to pay.
As the deficit grows, Hartford and its fellow MDC towns will inevitably find themselves in the same situation in later years even if they do manage to avoid the reserve fund this time, Caruk said.
“We don’t wanna miss any payments,” Bronin said. “Our objective is to get that off the table by getting a solution that gets Hartford back to health.”