Budget compromise reached, but ...?

Last week we urged the New London City Council to sustain Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio's veto of its general government budget. Our reasoning was that a veto would provide a restart, allowing the council to work with the mayor in adjusting the budget and in the process apply some salve to political wounds opened during the tough budget debate.

The seven-person council, however, took a different tack. It voted unanimously to override the veto, while moving money around within the budget, in the process restoring some pay and staff cuts that had targeted the administration. The council transferred $429,000, mostly from savings the mayor said were achieved when he reached a contract concession deal with city firefighters.

In other words, the council got to the same destination - adjusting for the concession deal and repairing the damage from a retaliatory action aimed at the administration - by a different path. By a 5-2 vote, funding was restored for the positions of deputy police chief, assistant city clerk, director of development and planning, the mayor's office administrator and the director of risk management.

A comment from the mayor's office: "I'm grateful the council and the administration could reach an amiable resolution to move the city forward," suggests, at least, an end to the feuding. As did the comments of council President Michael Passero about the budget, "It's a product of collaboration and building consensus."

That could bode well for council-mayoral relations as the city moves past the budget deliberations to the other challenges facing the city, if it has moved past. Voters could petition for a referendum on either the $42.3 million general government budget or the $40.6 million education budget, or both. Collectively, they require a 7.5 percent jump in property taxes. It's the first tax hike in years, a result in part from some unrealistic revenue and spending estimates that helped councils hold the line on taxes in the past. The accounting finally caught up with the city. But justified or not, taxes are high in New London and taxpayers may balk at paying more.

The council's reluctance to sustain the veto and restart the budget process at this late date - the fiscal year begins July 1 - is understandable. Yet we are troubled by approval of a budget with quite a few loose ends. The actual savings from the concession deal the administration reached with the firefighters union, and from an agreement over staffing it obtained from the police union leadership, are fuzzy at best. The administration had not made public the details of the deals at the time the council voted and firefighters have yet to ratify the concession package.

But the administration signed off on the strategy of overturning the veto and adjusting the budget, confident it can make the numbers work.

It also appears the council and administration may have blundered in approving a $40.6 million education budget (the mayor chose not to veto that budget), which includes a special $809,000 state Education Cost Sharing grant. The problem is the rules for that grant do not allow it be included as part of the regular spending level set by the council. The public schools are now authorized to spend $40.6 million, plus the $809,000. If the council's intent was for the schools to spend $40.6 million, including the grant, it should have set the budget at $39.8 million, the flat-funding it initially called for.

Under the state's Minimum Budget Requirements, that $40.6 million now becomes the lowest budget the council can set for the 2013-2014 school year.

It's just another strange twist in a bizarre budget year.

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