MARB members praise West Haven fiscal progress but will keep Tier 4 on the table
Members of the state Municipal Accountability Review Board praised city officials Monday, June 4, for the work they’ve done so far to get West Haven back on track, but will recommend leaving “Tier 4” status open as a possibility, for now.
Tier 4 is a higher level of supervision under which the MARB would have the power to pass and implement an interim budget, raise the city’s tax rate or impose mid-year spending cuts and have greater latitude to approve or disapprove new labor contracts.
“I appreciate that the city has made an effort to avoid that outcome by enacting a set of budget provisions that, with a couple of areas of uncertainty, largely accomplishes” the goals the MARB has set out for the city, said state Office of Policy and Management Secretary Benjamin Barnes, the MARB’s chairman.
He spoke after the MARB’s West Haven Subcommittee, which met Monday afternoon in City Hall, reviewed a host of budget city budget changes and updates.
The subcommittee was to make the recommendation to the full board when it met Thursday in the State Board Of Regents Boardroom.
The MARB, created this year, is working with both West Haven and Hartford to improve their finances. The two currently are the only Connecticut municipalities at Tier 3 status.
But while West Haven has made much progress — not the least of which was finally agreeing on a budget that relies on what MARB members considered to be more realistic revenue projections, then setting a tax rate that included a one-mill increase — members still have some questions.
“I’d like to get a better grasp on health insurance, where that’s going to be as far as costs go,” said MARB member Patrick Egan, former New Haven assistant fire chief and executive officer and former president of the New Haven firefighters union.
“I think the city has made significant progress,” and while “we certainly haven’t dwelled on it ... I’m pleased to see that the city has recognized the need to move the mill rate,” said MARB member Tom Hamilton, chief financial officer for the Norwalk Public Schools and a former West Haven finance director.
“I think that that’s significant and necessary under the circumstances, and so I think the city, with these revisions, has made substantial progress,” Hamilton said. “I’m not sure they’re quite there yet. I agree the health insurance is an area that I’m not comfortable with yet.”
Hamilton also said that “Tier 4 in my mind is still something potentially still on the table. But I think that there’s been a lot of progress,” he said.
MARB member Scott Jackson, state commissioner of labor and the former mayor of Hamden, said that at this point, “I think we need to figure out where this year ends. I think the red items need to be addressed” and the city needs to show “what the long-term viablity of the plan looks like.
“I do think that the steps that have been taken over the last couple of weeks haven’t advanced the city toward Tier 4 status in any way,” Jackson said. “It’s at least held steady. I look forward to seeing how the projections for year end go.
“I do think that the mayor and her team and the finance director and her team have done a lot of work to move this budget forward,” Jackson said.
Barnes said one possibility, given that a new fiscal year is about to begin in less than a month, would be to see how the work the city already has done works out.
“If things don’t go well, we would have an opportunity” to make the move to Tier 4 well in advance of the start of the following fiscal year, he said.
Mayor Nancy Rossi thanked the MARB subcommittee for its input.
“I want to thank all of you for your time,” Rossi said. “We’re going to do our best as a city to avoid Tier 4. We’ve shown cooperation between the City Council and the mayor’s office to do this.”
The council finally approved a budget on May 29, nearly a month after it let Rossi’s $162.86 million recommended budget go into effect by default — but with a $3 million hole because its counted on $3 million in MARB money that later proved not to be available for operations.
The budget passed May 29 contains a number of cuts and raises the citywide tax rate, not including the additional tax rate for fire service, by one mill, from 35.26 mills to 36.26 mills. Each mill represents $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
The Allingtown fire tax rate, the only one the city controls, will rise to 13.06 mills.
Barnes had told the council that if it did not not pass a budget by Thursday’s MARB meeting, West Haven might have faced the possibilty of the MARB pushing the city up to Tier 4, which would have meant a further loss of local control.