Growing budget deficits tied to pension, insurance costs

 

NEW HAVEN — Confronting yawning budget gaps of $4.2 million this year and nearly $6 million next year, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. wants to recast city workers’ health insurance and pension benefits.

In a April 28 City Hall press conference, DeStefano noted that employee health insurance and pension costs have skyrocketed from 12 to 22 percent of the city budget. He called those costs the “Pac Man” of the municipal budget with an unquenchable appetite for dollars.

 

To fill this year’s gap, the city will have to dip into its rainy-day fund. The fund war at $9.2 million, now it will fall to $5 million, DeStefano said. That is far below the level — five percent of the operating budget, or $23 million in this year’s budget — that city auditors recommend.

 

The mayor forecasts that next year’s $475.4 million budget will have a $5.9 million shortfall, with gaps ballooning to $15 million, $27 million and $39 million in fiscal years 2013, 2014 and 2015, respectively.

 

Among the reasons for this year’s deficit, according to DeStefano, were higher-than-budgeted police and fire overtime costs (accounting for $1.65 million of the deficit) and $1 million in planned union concessions that were never achieved.

 

On the revenue side, more “aggressive” tax collections increased revenues by $2 million. But state aid for education fell by $2.1 million, and parking meter revenue declined $1.3 million because, the mayor said, “for part of the winter, the meters were literally covered with snow.” (In January and February alone, meter receipts were down 22 percent).

 

DeStefano discussed changes to the fiscal 2012 budget, including a reversal of the decision to sell the Temple Medical parking garage. The property was appraised at $9 million, and listed for $7 million, but the only offer for the structure and land was $2.5 million. “We were viewed as a distress seller,” DeStefano explained.

 

With regard to pension and health-care benefits, which now account for nearly a quarter of the city’s budget, DeStefano said, “I don’t see a way to manage down that budget gap” without changing the benefit structure.

 

Thus he proposed a defined benefit pension plan with new eligibility and benefit rules, and changing to a new base health care plan with higher deductibles but free preventative care — a proposal one union official later called “out of touch with reality.”