New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio and the City Council continue to get mixed signals as they prepare to adjust city spending and taxation in response to the Aug. 6 referendum rejecting the city government and education budgets, as well as the tax rate.
On the one hand they have the vote itself. By solid margins those who bothered to vote said "no" to the $41.6 million city government budget, the $40.4 million education spending plan and rejected the 0.9 mill-rate tax hike, a 3.8 percent increase. But, as Mayor Finizio observes, it was hardly a mandate since only about 10 percent of registered voters participated.
But, as noted in a prior editorial, the turnout made the results no less binding and the mayor and council have an obligation to find substantive ways to adjust spending and lower the tax rate.
Yet city residents are also sending other messages, even if not at the ballot box.
The City Council, in responding to the concerns raised at a series of Public Safety Committee meetings, is forcing the mayor's hand by requiring a four-dog canine police unit. Arguing on both policy (he thinks use of "biting" police dogs are the wrong approach in an urban community) and fiscal grounds, Mayor Finizio wanted a two-dog unit. The council, however, overrode his veto and stood by its four-dog policy.
The size of the canine unit became entangled with a larger debate over public safety in the city and the exodus of a large number of officers from the New London Police Department. Budget cuts had made layoffs likely. They were avoided only because so many officers chose to find work elsewhere. The city needs to begin rebuilding its department.
Now officials involved with operating the city's various athletic leagues are voicing concerns about field availability. Repairs to some fields are taking longer than expected, while other fields are not maintained as well as in the past, they say. This is little wonder, however, since the Parks and Grounds Maintenance Division of Public Works has over several years seen the elimination of seasonal help and the number of full-time workers cut from 10 down to six. .
Similarly, the finance office, contributions to the public library and support for downtown promotion have all seen cuts, with the city experiencing a 25 percent reduction in the workforce over the last couple of years, according to the administration.
Mayor Finizio says he is trying to build a consensus on the council for how to address the budget situation, but declined to discuss what he specifically might propose. Ideally savings may be found. For example, unemployment compensation set aside for police layoffs proved unneeded because of the high number of voluntary departures. Organizations dependent on city subsidies can also expect to take a hit.
On the education side, which saw a $600,000 increase after several years of flat funding, the council must be cautious not to cut so deeply that it detracts from efforts to improve the struggling school system and inhibits the transition to a district of all magnet schools.
In preparing to propose an adjusted budget to the council, Mayor Finizio must strike a balance between his obligation to respond to the vote and the reality that city services have been cut significantly already. "We are falling below the bottom," he said.
Preferably that should mean some fiscal adjustments, a reduction in the proposed tax rate, but no large-scale cuts in services. It will be a challenge.