The Hartford city council Thursday decided against acting on a budget that one councilman said promised taxes so high the city would be "raping our taxpayers," and Mayor Eddie A. Perez urged the council "to put politics and posturing aside, get to work and pass a budget."
On the same day that treadmills, elliptical machines and free weights made their way into a new employee gym at city hall, the council spent more than seven hours debating the budget before it decided to postpone action until hours before its Sunday deadline.
Perez originally proposed a $547.6 million budget. After the council's amendments, the mayor's vetoes, and more council work, the figure was $535.79 million Thursday night — reducing the proposed tax rate increase by roughly one-third.
The budget needs five votes to pass. After five council members — Luis Cotto and Larry Deutsch of the Working Families Party, and Democrats Kenneth Kennedy, Matt Ritter and Pedro Segarra — said they were leaning against the budget, the council Thursday night postponed its vote.
Perez then issued a press release saying that a no vote on the budget would mean a tax increase twice what he had proposed. He called the council back into session Sunday at noon, 12 hours before its deadline.
Some of Thursday's most heated discussion concerned whether to cut funding for city staff, and by how much. In the end, the council and the mayor agreed to cut $3.2 million.
But Cotto said cutting from the staffing budget was "like putting a gun to the unions' head."
Republican Veronica Airey-Wilson told her colleagues that they weren't serious about cutting the budget, and that they were hiding behind a union "smokescreen."
Council President Calixto Torres, a Democrat, said "the last thing" he wanted was layoffs.
Majority Leader rJo Winch said it's time for union leaders to make concessions.
Ritter took aim at the administration itself, saying the unions had no real partner in concession talks.
"You can be as powerful as you want," he said of the administration. "But your inability to agree with people or to be disagreeable in a way that engenders respect is a very dangerous thing."
Segarra, who ran the council's budget proceedings, said he felt that the mayor was subverting the budget process. The tax increase that would result from the council's $535.79 million budget, Segarra said, would mean the city "will be raping our taxpayers."
Then there was the gym. The gym itself, the city says, was paid for with $18,000 in grant funds "to promote health and wellness and focus on a healthy workforce."
But Kennedy said that even though the city's general fund didn't pay for it, the gym is in fact a symbol.
"What do we say to our workers [who could be laid off]… when we're in fact building a gymnasium?" Kennedy asked.
Distrust and acrimony between some council members and the Perez administration have marked this year's budget deliberations.
The council itself is fractured. The Democratic majority has been scarred by infighting earlier this year over the leadership of Torres after Perez's January arrest on bribery charges.
Throughout this year's budget process, the council has kept an eye on the city's discussions to obtain union concessions to help reduce the 2009-10 budget. But as of Thursday, apparently no deals had been reached.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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