Leaders of financially strapped Hartford are struggling to persuade state legislators facing their own budget crisis to come up with tens of millions of dollars in additional aid to help the city avoid bankruptcy and ultimately become economically stable.
The city is seeking $40 million more from the state to help offset the deficit in next year's roughly $600 million budget. The extra money would come with some strings for Hartford, such as holding the line on spending and working with local unions to cut costs.
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So far, city officials have made deep spending cuts and sought about $16 million in labor concessions from seven city unions. But after one of the city's largest unions recently voted down a negotiated agreement that could have saved about $4 million over six years, that request for extra state aid has become a tougher sell in the General Assembly, according to Hartford Rep. Matt Ritter, who is also the majority leader of the House of Representatives.
Meanwhile, only one of the unions, the firefighters, has so far agreed to labor concessions. The rest remain in negotiations or arbitration.
"We now need to find a way to have our local unions come to the table and agree and vote ... on the concession targets that we all agreed we could reach. And to the extent those are not reached, I would just say this to everyone in Hartford: 'What do you expect the Hartford delegation to do? Our hands get tied pretty quickly."
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, a Republican, said there was already "a varying of opinions" among lawmakers about what to do, if anything, to help Hartford.
"If they're not going to be helping themselves insofar as the union concessions, I think it will make many people think ... if they're not going to help themselves, why should we?"
Union officials argue that front-line Hartford workers have already made considerable labor concessions and some unions are still meeting with Democratic Mayor Luke Bronin to find further savings. Lori Pelletier, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, last week accused Bronin of "attempting to villainize workers," saying he should instead thank them for givebacks they've already made and continue to make.
Ritter, however, warns that if the city of Hartford doesn't take the steps lawmakers from across the state are seeking, including labor concessions, "it puts a lot of pressure on people who may say the city is going to need additional oversight that they probably don't want." Connecticut is facing its own projected $5 billion state budget deficit over the next two years.
The additional state funding is also considered key to leveraging a $50 million donation spread out over the next five years from the city's three major employers, insurers The Aetna, Travelers and The Hartford. Bronin said the money is conditional on it being part of a "comprehensive, sustainable solution" for Hartford, dubbed the insurance capital of the world.
Since taking office on Jan. 1, 2016, Bronin has been outspoken about Hartford's intractable financial situation. The city of 125,000 people, where nearly half of Hartford's children live in poverty, cannot tax about half of the property in its nearly 18 square miles, such as colleges and hospitals. It relies on a tax base that's smaller or slightly more than its suburbs while charging one of the state's highest local property tax rates.
The city had to rely this year on short-term borrowing to cover payroll and other costs. Earlier this month, the city began seeking proposals from law firms that specialize in municipal bankruptcy law.
Bronin has called for major changes in how the state's cities operate and are funded. For example, he proposed legislation last year that would create a so-called sustainability commission, which would help settle municipal labor contracts based on the fiscal sustainability of the city. He has also made the argument for greater regional cooperation and revenue sharing between Hartford and its' wealthier neighbors.
Bronin said he believes the state legislature and Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recognize Connecticut needs a "strong and stable" capital city, despite the actions of one union.
"While I believe that the unions must be part of the solution, the structural problem is much bigger than labor," Bronin said. "It's rooted in the way we've built our state and the fact that we are asking our city, our capital city, to run on a property tax base that's smaller than a suburb. I don't think anybody should be under the illusion that labor concessions alone can solve the problem."