Bridgeport council passes budget, Ganim considers veto

May 7, 2019

BRIDGEPORT - The schools got a little more, cops and taxpayers a bit less in the budget the City Council passed Monday.

“Right now this is the best course,” Councilwoman Denese Taylor-Moye told her colleagues before the vote.

Taylor-Moye and Councilwoman Maria Zambrano Viggiano co-chair the council’s budget committee, which over the weekend wrapped up a month’s work revising the $565 million 2019-20 fiscal plan proposed in early April by Mayor Joe Ganim.

Ganim and all 20 council members are Democrats.

As previously reported late last week, to give the school district more than the $247.7 million in flat-funding Ganim offered, the committee recommended reducing the mayor’s proposed election-year tax cut.

Ganim had wanted a tax break that, on average, would save homeowners around $125 to $150 on average, but cost $4.5 million.

The budget the committee recommended and the full council approved Monday instead provided an average $50 decrease at a cost of $2.3 million, and gave the Board of Education $1.3 million more.

That is still far less than the $16 million education advocates have said was desperately needed.

Councilman Kyle Langan, who with a handful of colleagues, including Zambrano Viggiano, unsuccessfully offered an amendment to eliminate the tax cut entirely to provide that money to the schools, said, “This is a sad moment for our city ... Even if this (amendment) goes through, it does not get close to maintaining existing services for the Board of Education.”

The police department also took a hit. Ganim had recommended a slight reduction in overtime from $5.4 million in the current 2018-19 budget to $5.3 million in next year’s. The budget committee and council dropped that amount to $4.7 million.

Councilwoman Jeanette Herron helped to block her colleagues on the budget committee from reducing cop overtime even further. But Herron acknowledged the fact that the city always comes up with the money when the department runs over budget.

Proponents of the overtime cuts have argued that they at the least will force Police Chief Armando Perez to try to better manage his costs.

“It’s going to be hard,” Herron said of the $4.7 million overtime budget. “But if they need the money, they’re going to get it.”

The big question now is what will Ganim, who presided over Monday’s council meeting, do. He has the authority to veto the budget or budget line items.

The mayor did not make any comments ahead of the vote. In an interview afterward he said he appreciated the council’s hard work “and it looks like they did their best to compromise.”

Ganim suggested he might consider vetoing portions of the budget as a strategy to delay implementation until state lawmakers pass their own fiscal plan and Bridgeport knows what it will receive in aid. The city recently learned it could not count on $4 million in state dollars built into the mayor’s April proposal.

“At the very least it extends the time frame to see how the state shakes out on increased (municipal) funding,” Ganim said of a potential veto.

The mayor also indicated he had not fully embraced the reduced, average $50 tax break.

“I’ll be looking to push for as much of a tax cut as I can as I review possibly vetoing items the council changed,” he said.

But Council President Aidee Nieves in an interview Monday said, “I am certain the mayor will honor this budget. It does things the council wanted to do and he wanted to do.”

The mayor’s tax proposal was a divisive topic for the council’s budget committee, and those divisions were again aired at Monday’s full council meeting.

Councilwoman Christina Smith, who is not running for what would be her sophomore term, said her time on the budget committee taught her that process is based on “ a system of patronage, politics and threats that funnel money to where it should not go.”

Smith represents one of the highest-taxed neighborhoods, Black Rock, but wanted to spend the tax cut money on education.

“Bridgeport is the highest-taxed city maybe in the state,” countered Councilman Ernest Newton, who represents the lower income East End. “It (a small tax break) means a lot to people who live in poor neighborhoods.”

Councilwoman Mary McBride-Lee agreed. She said lower income residents would appreciate even a $5 tax decrease.

But Councilman Peter Spain, who also represents Black Rock, said the council should not be lowering taxes “on the backs of the kids. That’s not what we were elected to do.”

Taylor-Moye noted how while Ganim for four years in a row has flat-funded the schools, the council’s budgets provided more education dollars.

“If you see every year we’re giving something, how can you say we don’t care about our kids?’” Taylor-Moye said.