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March 21, 2016 Editorial

No good options for city or state

The economic and fiscal storm clouds hanging over the State Capitol have now engulfed the entire city of Hartford.

Indeed, the state of permanent fiscal crisis that saturates state government's finances has spread its ugly tentacles to the Capital City, and there appears to be no easy remedies to either problem.

The alarm bells sounded by newly minted Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin — who is calling for significant spending cuts, city layoffs and potential revenue increases to deal with double-digit deficits for the foreseeable future — are both terrifying and enlightening.

Frankly, it's refreshing to hear a politician come clean on Hartford's true short- and long-term fiscal outlook, and the dire straits the city is in. An individual or group of people can't fix a problem until they know the true extent of it. Bronin has made it crystal clear that an estimated $9 million deficit this fiscal year and $32 million deficit next year are only the tip of Hartford's fiscal iceberg.

Unfortunately, hard truths inevitably hurt, and the need to raise new revenues — through tax increases or other methods — now seems more likely in the years ahead from both the city and state. While Bronin told WNPR last week that a property tax increase, particularly on small business owners, would “risk killing a city,” the mayor has already hinted at the need for the city's largest commercial property owners and nonprofits to contribute more.

That will make Hartford a tougher sell to businesses. That's unfortunate, particularly as Hartford has been gaining momentum in recent years with new companies and residents entering the city, and the prospects of UConn's downtown campus opening in 2017.

And things could get worse before they get better. Municipalities have largely been spared from budget cuts since Gov. Dannel P. Malloy took office, but top Democratic leaders are now eyeing reductions to city and town aid to plug the state's burgeoning deficit. Bronin knows that a state bailout, even for the Capital City, would be a tough ask.

It's likely the state's fiscal problems will increasingly trickle down to municipalities in the years ahead.

Now more than ever, Hartford's mayor must bring businesses to the budget-negotiating table and allow them to be key players in helping solve the city's problems. Not only is their support crucial in preserving Hartford's tax base, but they have intellectual capital that can bring new ideas to solving age-old municipal finance problems.

To his credit, Bronin has shown a willingness to work with the business community, which has high hopes for the novice mayor. He's even tapped a top private-sector executive — Phoenix Cos. Chief Financial Officer Bonnie Malley — to serve in his administration as chief operating officer. Malley hasn't started yet, but her appointment should bring new perspectives to city hall.

The business and nonprofit communities must also be willing partners. If Bronin can articulate a vision and plan for the future that offers short-term pain in exchange for long-term growth and stability it may be the city's only path forward.

Bronin also continues to promote the need for regionalism, which we fully support. If Hartford continues to stand alone, its economic disadvantages — including a larger percentage of tax-exempt properties and higher poverty rate, among others — will continue to weigh the city down.

Much more needs to be done to knock down the walls between municipalities so that resources can be shared and savings derived. It's an imperative for both the city and the state to manage through these choppy fiscal waters.

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