Ganim eyes election-year tax cut

March 29, 2019 GMT

BRIDGEPORT — An increase in the city’s grand list combined with election-year politics may have a positive impact on overburdened taxpayers.

Three years after Mayor Joe Ganim outraged some neighborhoods by hiking Bridgeport’s tax rate from 42 to 54 mills, he is running for re-election and considering offering a modest tax reduction in his proposed budget.

That draft 2019-20 fiscal plan is expected to be forwarded to the City Council on Tuesday.

“The mayor and I had a preliminary conversation about lowering or attempting to lower taxes,” City Council President Aidee Nieves said. “From my understanding, he is proposing a budget with tax cuts in it.”

Ganim refused in a brief interview Thursday night to talk budget details, but stated, “I’m very sensitive to taxpayers.” His last two spending plans kept taxes the same.

The mayor said he planned to consult with council members over the weekend, ahead of that legislative body’s regular Monday meeting. Ganim is expected to deliver a few comments on his budget then, and also to tout it when he delivers his annual state-of-the-city address to the business community Tuesday at the University of Bridgeport.

Crunching numbers

Councilwoman Maria Zambrano Viggiano, along with the Budget Committee she co-chairs, will spend April reviewing the mayor’s draft. She said it is obvious Ganim would at least want to hold the line on taxes.

“I suspect because it is an election year for the mayor it would be wise for him to keep taxes where they are,” she said.

Viggiano said lowering taxes might be a good short-term political move not only for the mayor but for council members who are also facing re-election. But, she warned, that would be an irresponsible decision if it requires raising taxes in non-election years.

“I don’t want to see a significant reduction in taxes that’s not sustainable,” she said.

Ganim and the council head into the budget season buoyed by some recent good fiscal news, but also facing new pressures.

The grand list of taxable properties grew 5 percent, thanks mostly to the ongoing construction of a natural gas-fired power plant. That project was initiated during former Mayor Bill Finch’s administration and continued after Ganim was elected in late 2015.

It was Finch, a Democrat like Ganim, whom the latter blamed when he and the council raised the tax rate to 54 mills, one of the highest in Connecticut. Ganim and his staff claimed at the time that he had inherited a surprise deficit from his predecessor.

The recent grand list growth means that if city spending stays roughly the same in the 2019-20 budget, Ganim and the council could conceivably reduce the tax rate and still collect enough revenue to balance the books.

Looking for cuts

But maintaining the same level of city spending will be a challenge, given changes to wages and benefits.

For example, the Ganim administration recently negotiated contracts with the Laborers International Union of North America and the City Supervisors Association that include 2 percent wage increases for the current fiscal year and the upcoming 2019-20 one that begins July 1. Ganim’s salary and the salaries of other elected or appointed officials are tied to the supervisors’ contract and will similarly rise.

And the state recently required municipalities that participate in Connecticut’s non-education pension system to increase their contributions by 20 percent. That will have an estimated $3.5 million impact on Bridgeport’s 2019-20 budget.

Meanwhile, Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed budget flat-funded municipal aid while asking cities and towns to start contributing toward the state’s teacher pension program.

Asked what his proposed 2019-20 budget would do for public schools, Ganim reiterated his previous complaint that state government repeatedly shortchanges Bridgeport when it comes to education dollars.

The Bridgeport Board of Education wants $16 million above its current $248 million operating budget. Ganim’s past budget proposals have flat-funded the schools, leaving it up to the council to find more money.

Ganim said he will “help fight” for additional state education aid, adding: “It’s unfair what they do to Bridgeport, year after year after year.”

Viggiano said the public would like to see more money go to the school district, but that the council “has mixed feelings.”

“I’m of the mind: Let’s try to give additional funds,” she said.

Viggiano said she is certain other areas of the budget can be cut. She referred to the costs of some recent, controversial municipal projects — the new public facilities garage and decorative lighting in the Black Rock neighborhood — as well as the ongoing FBI investigation of missing money from illicit scrap metal sales.

“There’s definitely areas where money was spent where the council feels the administration could have done better,” Viggiano said.

It is also possible that as the full council prepares to vote on a budget in early May, City Hall will find some new cost savings. Last year, for example, on the weekend ahead of the budget vote, Ganim’s staff announced a decision to shift the employee health plan from self-insured to a state program, which freed up over $1 million in the 2018-19 budget.