New London needs fiscal reform
New London’s expenses are set to increase again, with a nearly 10% increase in taxes, and the blame falling on health care costs and an estimated $1.7 million loss in state funding. One would be prudent to ask why Groton — anticipating a 200% greater loss in state funding ($5 million) — is “only” raising taxes 8.7%.
You could look at the latest annual financial report for the city and see that taxes have increased nearly 30% in the last five years and wonder when the bleeding will stop.
Indeed, a harder look at curtailing growing costs like the nearly $2 million in overtime salaries and the bloat in central office and building administration on the education side is needed and warranted, but it will not solve the ingrained procedural and organizational issues that have helped us into this unsavory financial situation.
The finance board has the chartered responsibility to keep council in check and recommend the amount for which to approve both the City and Board of Education budgets. With such an important role to play, it is imperative to ensure that all members of the board are not only in a position where they are able to attend, but also free and clear of any conflicts that would prevent them from voting on such budgetary recommendations. The latter, in fact, is required by Sec. 15-207 of the City Charter.
A larger issue is the fact that the public has very little say in the budget itself. Public hearings and comment ‘check the box,’ but the reality of the situation becomes quite clear when the roll is called — real, effectual change is still but a dream. The public’s only recourse is the referendum process, which results in a scenario where the public has to wait until November to vote on a budget for a fiscal year we are already six months into. This could easily be avoided by expediting a vote on a successful referendum petition (i.e., not waiting until November), or by sending every annual budget to a city-wide vote.
We need a new financial strategy for New London, one that includes increased focus on economic development and a renewed push for regionalization and the combining of applicable BOE and city resources to help financially foster the former. Combining of resources could, for example, eliminate the need for three financial directors (two BOE and one city) and reduce the $350,000 the two departments want to spend for new, ostensibly redundant equipment. We need to strategically pursue regionalization efforts that will leverage the cost efficiencies of sharing services — including education. The Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments is currently underwriting a study to look into how Southeastern Connecticut can prosper together through more pervasive regionalization. New London needs to be an active champion of this study, as we are already a regional provider of many social services, without the benefit of regional revenue.
City government must continue to ask our physically entrenched and financially flush non-profit entities like Yale/L+M and Connecticut College for greater economic assistance, and along with our state legislators, lean on Hartford for the Payment In Lieu of Tax (PILOT) reform we desperately need. Here again, we provide regional services without the financial recompense. New London would stand to gain millions of dollars in new revenue with such reform, dramatically reducing our dependence on state funding. In addition, general reform of how non-profit entities are administered is essential to conserving proper and rightful tax revenue in New London.
While true PILOT reform is a longer-term goal requiring collaboration outside of New London, many of the other issues can be addressed with revisions to our City Charter, increased communication with our community and collaboration with our municipal neighbors.
In the end, New London has as much a revenue issue as it has an expense issue. Attacking both ends of the equation is the only way to move us forward.
Tim Ryan is the secretary of the New London Republican Town Committee. firstname.lastname@example.org
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