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The New London voters have spoken, at least the roughly 19 percent who bothered to come to the polls Tuesday, rejecting the proposed $42.3 million general government budget and accompanying 27.22-mill tax rate, a 7.5 percent increase. The outcome was definitive on both questions, roughly 60 percent to 40 percent. (The council flat funded the $39.8 million education budget, which did not go to referendum.)
It now appears Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio and City Council President Michael Passero are prepared to act expeditiously to trim the budget and reduce the proposed tax increase to 5 percent. If they do, perhaps taxpayers will be satisfied and the amended budget ordinance will stand. It will require finding some combination of $1.265 million in cuts, savings and additional revenues.
In a spirit of cooperation the mayor and council president pirouetted around a potential City Charter controversy.
Mr. Passero has insisted it is up to the council to amend the budget ordinance and send it back to the mayor for his signature or veto. He plans to begin the process today with a goal to wrap it up by Oct. 1.
Conversely, Mayor Finizio has said it is up to the mayor to propose changes to the budget and send it to the council for review and amending.
To avoid a skirmish, Mayor Finizio will send the budget back to the council Monday relatively unchanged. He will only remove about $300,000 the city had expected to spend when taking over finance operations for the school system. The special master assigned to monitor efforts to improve city schools has nixed the plan as premature.
With the budget technically resubmitted, the mayor appears ready to let the council take the lead.
This plan forward is good news because the city did not need to waste time with a needless political argument about the process.
The mayor and council president are also in agreement with the city's director of law, Jeffrey T. Londregan, that three months into the fiscal year there is no need to go through every step of the budget preparation process, with hearings, reviews and revisions, as is required before the fiscal year.
If the process were to drag, the city could quickly confront a charter restriction that caps spending of city departments at no more than 25 percent of the prior year's budget while awaiting for an appropriation ordinance to become effective. The last time a budget debate dragged this far into a fiscal year was 2007. Back then the city blew through the 25 percent stop sign. When, in October of that year, voters attempted to petition to referendum the budget the council had approved, the law director invalidated it because the city had exceeded the spending cap. Taxpayers were rightfully angry and they will be again if the current administration likewise ignores the provision.
As for the budget itself, beware of easy fixes. Speaking Wednesday, Mayor Finizio and Mr. Passero talked of finding savings with interest rate reductions through refinancing debt and from the savings in not taking over school finance operations this year.
City Councilor Adam Sprecace has also raised the prospect of finding new revenues. Since calculating rosy revenue projections is the very approach that got the city into this fiscal mess to begin with, any proposed tax-rate cut that does not involve genuine spending cuts needs to be viewed with skepticism. The mayor vowed to block any funny business. He should be held to that.
However this turns out, New London will be operating with a very tight budget and no surplus to fall back on. Any unexpected expenses or drops in revenue could bring more painful cuts to come.