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Passero: Mayor oversteps his authority on budget

By MICHAEL PASSERO

Publication: The Day

Published June 05. 2012 9:28AM   Updated June 08. 2012 7:36AM

The myriad emotions expressed by folks following this year's City Council budget deliberations is nothing short of amazing.

Bewilderment, confusion and incredulity seem the most prevalent. My guess is that the community's emotions mirror the torment of city councilors as they very publicly wrestled through the process for weeks.

For councilors, the principal emotion has been frustration. Unfortunately, the frustration boiled over into anger during the council's attempt to finalize the appropriation ordinance for its third reading May 29.

The budget process is governed by the City Charter. The first step requires the administration to deliver a proposed budget to the council and Board of Finance containing an estimate of expenditures and revenues for each city department.

The process was crippled at the outset this year when the administration irresponsibly delivered a proposed budget that supposedly required an unrealistic 20 percent increase in property taxes. I say "supposedly" because so much of the information later turned out to be so inaccurate that the dramatic announcement of a budget requiring a 20 percent tax increase proved to be more theater than reality.

Nonetheless, the council immediately took on the ambitious goal of whittling the surreal tax increase down to a palatable 2 percent. The biggest challenges during the budget cutting process were the administration's apparent inability or unwillingness to provide accurate estimates of expenses and revenues and its constant manipulation of the numbers given to council throughout the process.

It was like playing a game of football when the goal post is moved farther out every time one's team gets within field goal range.

Despite the administration's refusal to recognize the charter's mandates and unrelenting frustration of the council's role, on April 30 the council finalized and passed the first reading of the budget. In the process, the council abandoned the goal of limiting the tax increase to 2 percent, swallowed hard, and passed a budget with an 8 percent tax increase in a compromise intended to save jobs and services.

Unfortunately, the council's apparent success at adopting a budget proved as ephemeral as the administration's numbers.

Three weeks after the first reading of the budget, two weeks after the public hearing on that budget and more than a week after the Finance Board's approval of the budget, the administration made a dramatic announcement that the budget passed by council would require draconian cuts in personnel.

Even worse, the administration decided to decimate the public safety departments with layoffs and spare the multiple administrative positions that had been newly created since the current administration was installed.

The surprise announcement at the 11th hour understandably shook the community's confidence in our government. Mistrust now reigns.

Once again, the council was not consulted before the administration's unilateral action. Once again, the administration's explanation seemed disingenuous. Once again, mistaken information provided by the finance department and built into the first reading of the budget was the root problem.

Characteristically, during a news conference following the third and final reading of the budget, the administration accused the council of overestimating revenues.

The real problem appears to be a mayor who has either no respect for or no understanding of the charter and who refuses to recognize the authority and role of the council.

The council is the check to a mayor with a pattern of impulsiveness and recklessness. His latest threat, to effectively dismantle the emergency response system July 1, is so irresponsible that it would be laughable, except that now people's lives are at risk.

I have a lifelong commitment and love for my city. I have served in many civic roles throughout the years and I have had the honor to serve as a firefighter for 28 years.

As blessed as my life has been in this city, the highest honor of all has been to be entrusted with a seat on the council.

Every action I take on the council is motivated solely by a desire to honor the people's trust, to honor the oath I took, and to do what is right for my city. In this, my only master is my conscience.

There is no challenge that this great city cannot overcome and we will certainly overcome the challenges we face now.

Michael Passero is the president of the New London City Council.

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