In May 2016, a couple hundred residents turned out to the Ansonia High School auditorium to voice their concern over the proposed budget from public officials, which would short change the Board of Education’s budget request by several million dollars and risk cutting school programs. Despite the concern of residents about the state of their school system, Board of Aldermen with the Mayor’s guidance voted to pass the underfunded school budget. It’s half a year later now and as it turns out, the schools really did need that money, and they are operating at approximately $1.6 million deficit,*** which the city will need to somehow pay for. The question is, where is this money going to come from? In order to put this in context it’s important to take a good look at the city’s finances.
Over the past ten years, the City of Ansonia has increased spending every year, with the exception of 2010 and 2012, averaging approximately $1.3 million dollar increases per year. The biggest share of our budget by far is paying for our school system, which at $36.5 million accounts for roughly 57% of our annual budget, followed by Police at $6.1 million and General Government Spending at $5.1 million.
So even with an administration that has emphasized taxes, it has proven difficult for them to actually reduce city spending. But while city spending has continued to rise, the desire to lower tax rates, and the difficulty in increasing new tax paying development has left the grand list of tax paying real estate stagnant, and tax revenues for the city too low, which has left the city strapped for cash.
In order to help our local financial challenges, our state reps have gone to work in Hartford to increase state grants for Ansonia, with increasing financial assistance from the State of Connecticut over the past several years by way education grants totaling $21.8 million annually.
In fact, roughly 41% of Ansonia’s annual operating budget comes from the state of CT, and that doesn’t even include grants for things like the new Farrel development. Despite the state assistance, the decreased tax revenue and increased spending has meant there’s not enough money to cover the operating budget of the city, so the city has had to spend money from the City’s Reserve Fund in enormous quantities to balance the budget. The Reserve Fund is essentially a rainy day fund or a savings account for the city.
Other measures the City has taken to try and balance the budget include selling off some income generating assets, like the sale of past due property taxes in 2016 for roughly $1 million, which were earning the city 18% interest annually, and also selling off the rights to a cell phone tower at Nolan Field in 2014 for $1.5 million, which had been generating the City of Ansonia roughly $100,000 a year in income for over a decade.
Despite the increased state assistance, the selling of the city’s income generating assets worth $2.5 million, and the increased spending from the city’s savings account spiking up over $5 million over the past three years, and rising to nearly $9 million with the Mayor’s latest budget, which proposes to spend another $4 million from the savings account, our property tax mill rate remains 19% above its long term seven year average.
So here we are, the relentless pace of city spending has stripped us of our assets, forced us to rely on spending from our savings account, underfunded our school system, sidewalks are crumbling, city parks are neglected, the armory is neglected, Peck school is neglected and dangerous, community centers are torn down or leased out, shootings downtown, theft in the hill top, millions of square feet of factory space downtown remain vacant and blighted, and we are still unable to balance our budget scratching our head with a roughly $1.6 million budget deficit this year. So what do you do when you run out of your own money? You borrow. In 2016, under the advice of city officials, the City of Ansonia approved $6 million in borrowing to pay for paving roads, purchasing vehicles, and other standard operating budget items, as well as $12 million for a new police station. Borrowed money is not free money, tax payers have to pay it back with millions of dollars in interest, and interest rates are rising and projected to rise more this year. So in addition to the increased city spending, tax payers will also be paying back loans to pay for roads and vehicles which we apparently can’t afford to buy with our normal budget anymore.
This spells trouble folks. City spending is rising, we’ve sold our assets, we’ve maxed out our borrowing capability without jeopardizing our credit score, and we’re financing our budget by eating into our savings account and borrowing. We have placed ourselves in a very precarious financial position, we have given our schools the poor headline of being underfunded, and now the whole world reads that our Mayor is ready to effectively close our library and cut recreation programs. The Mayor says it’s absurd to say he is “effectively closing” the library, when you cut all full time employees which facilitate the programs and provide library services, and you close the building 5 out of 7 days, call it what you will, it won’t be providing the services of the library anymore, you might as well close it 7 out of 7 days and save money on the heating bill. This is particularly embarrassing when most libraries in the state and around the country are expanding the scope of services and operating hours.
The Mayor would like to blame this mismanagement on Hartford and our school system, of course, why would you want to take responsibility for your city’s financial position? It’s the administrations job to figure out why the city’s special education costs and other non-education city spending are rising so fast, and what we can do about it, other than penalizing our teachers and emergency service responders to take a pay or benefits cut.
I’m sorry to say that even when we remove education costs from the City’s spending, the Mayor’s last approved budget was 5% higher than the average of the five last years of the previous administration.
Some would like to suggest that the state will be able to bail us out with a re-work in education cost sharing between the state and municipalities. Indeed, we may well receive a more equitable distribution with regard to education funding, which we would all love and hope for, but with the state already paying for more than 41% of our budget, which is much higher than average, and when the State is facing belt tightening challenges with its own budget, we may up end up just getting a more fair slice of a smaller pie. While we will all be working hard to get increased education funding from the state, it would be very risky to rely on this outcome, and we shouldn’t put ourselves in a position where the city is ready to implode without it. This administration wants to complain about being treated unfairly by the state, however, in 2014 every dollar Ansonia sent to the state in taxes, we got more than $1.7 back. Again, the State pays for 41% percent of our city’s operating budget, and even more in specific project grants like the Farrel development, which ranks us 13th highest out of 168 municipalities in the state with regard to state assistance relative to the size of our budget. So while we may be entitled to more money under an education re-work, we would hardly say that our overall relationship with the state is currently unfair. Besides, even with an education re-work, it will do nothing to touch the rest of our city’s non-education spending, which has also risen consistently, and is now 8% higher than it was in 2010.
What will the City do if one of our many 150 year old retaining walls fall and we need to pay $500,000 to repair it? Is there any money left for actually investing to grow our city’s economy and improve the quality of life? It really is a demonstration of values and priorities, that in the Mayor’s latest 2017-2018 budget, they basically shut down the library and recreation programs, which follows from last year’s underfunding of education; meanwhile they’re willing to borrow millions of dollars for a fleet of new vehicles. The mayor would like to point his finger at Hartford, but the buck stops with him, this is our town and our budget, and when push comes to shove he’s shown that he’s willing to underfund the very institutions and communities that make this city an attractive place to live. The last time this city borrowed money, we built a brand new beautiful high school for our kids. What does this Mayor want to borrow for? Will it help attract new residents or retain existing residents? If we don’t layout a transparent and long term vision of where this city is going financially and economically, we will be left going broke trying treat the systems that are hurting our city, rather than curing the disease and providing a sustainable and bright future. At that point no amount of finger pointing will make it better. Everyone needs to step up and ask questions about where this city is going, otherwise we’ll lose it, and once it’s gone it will be very difficult to get it back.
The only way to cure our financial woes is to grow our city and improve property values. We need to grow our city by attracting new residents and new businesses, and no amount of underfunding education or cutting our library, or cutting our recreation programs is going to do that. Cutting our library or underfunding education is what is called penny wise and dollar foolish. You might save tax payers some pocket change in the short term, but meanwhile, what will happen to our property values when the world reads that we underfund our schools and cut our library and recreation programs? Not good. This administration is so hyper focused on the tax rate, and says that our tax rate is killing our local economy. The reality is that Ansonia residents and businesses pay some of the lowest taxes per square foot of space than anywhere in Connecticut.
So it is clear that property taxes can’t be what’s keeping businesses and residents out of Ansonia, any more than they are keeping them out of Oxford, Southbury, Stamford, Milford, Orange, Cheshire or Fairfield. So if it’s not taxes that are keeping businesses and residents out of Ansonia, what IS keeping businesses out of Ansonia? We know that it certainly doesn’t help to have Mayor Cassetti shouting from the roof tops that taxes are too high in Ansonia, when what we should be saying to the world is, move to Ansonia, you will pay some of the lowest taxes in Connecticut. Perception matters, and Mayor Cassetti has created a perception that taxes are high in Ansonia, and that we underfund education and community programs. Our Economic Development commission met for the first time in a year this past Thursday the 16th. Leadership in this town either needs to change their approach, or we need to change leadership, because this city needs a creative long term vision to grow, and make it a top choice for new residents and businesses. The current approach, or lack thereof, is fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable, and taxpayers will be the ones that foot the bill. The Mayor says he doesn’t want to raise taxes, however, government is a fee for service proposition, so if they’re spending more and we are getting reduced services, then they have effectively already raised taxes. We need real creative vision, real improvement to the quality of life, and don’t try to sell us on the idea that taxes are what’s keeping us from competing because that myth has been debunked. The Mayor will try to discredit this letter, that it’s political, that the previous administration did this, that Hartford’s doing that…Whether we’re Democrats, Independents, or Republicans, we are residents of this city, we don’t like what we see, and yes, we will be running for office this autumn with real vision and a plan to tackle this city’s challenges.
Take these graphs to the Mayor and city officials and challenge them to explain how we’re going to fix this. No more complaining, no more finger pointing about what previous administrations did or what Hartford’s doing, it’s time to take responsibility for our city. Don’t let them tell you that “they’ll take care of it” or that “they’re working on it”, don’t settle until you get a detailed answer on paper that you understand and are comfortable with. This is their full time job, we pay them a lot of money to do this, we elected them, and they work for us. This is our city, our homes, our neighborhoods, our safety, our bank accounts, our schools, our children, our grandparents, our quality of life, and our future. We all need to own it and do something about it. It starts with all of us.
Editor’s Note: With election season now upon us and limited resources at the Valley Indy, we’ll begin enforcing a strict 550-word limit on guest columns a week from today.