Stratford mayor proposes budget-gap solution

STRATFORD — The Town Council received some good news Monday night on Stratford’s $5.4 million-plus shortfall. A good chunk of that gap, caused by the failure of sewer plant sale referendum in November, can be made up by reducing payments to the Town Hall’s worker’s compensation fund, town officials said.

Finance Director Susan Collier explained to the council during its four-hour meeting Monday that this fund — used to pay for future worker compensation claims — could sustain some reduction is funding, thus providing about $3 million.

The new Town Council, meeting together for only the second time, sailed into office on the coattails of the sewer plant “no” votes. There are three Republicans and seven Democrats, and nearly all have has least some disdain for the way Mayor John Harkins has been running things.

The mayor was needled at times Monday night; council members accusing him of not giving them enough information, for not reining in leased cars, for making recent hires. There were other banderillas.

Finally, after nearly two hours of the this, Harkins decided that he had enough.

“I heard a lot of negative comments tonight about how things have been run in town,” he said. “Let me say this — things have never been better in Stratford. Our parks are in better shape. Our services are being delivered more efficiently. Crime is down. Our pension fund is being funded ...”

They mayor said that these advancements were hard-fought gains.

“It’s hard to build things. It’s hard to have success. It’s easy to criticize. It’s easy to say, ‘Let’s change it,’ ” he said, raising his voice.

Still, the mayor did receive some praise.

“We’re all on the same team, and you’re the team leader,” 10th District Councilwoman Tina Manus said, approvingly, “and we look up to you.”

Collier said that the worker’s compensation fund has sufficient funds to last through the end of the fiscal years.

“It’s more than fully funded for our current liabilities,” she said, adding that “the fund itself is in very good shape.”

Harkins had pushed hard to sell the town’s waste treatment system to the Greater New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority. This would have given the town more than $9 million in cash, money that Town Hall was counting on to balance its 2014-15 and 2015-16 budgets. The hit for the current fiscal yea is $5.4 million.

But, almost counterintuitively, the town won’t have to spend $580,000 in fees that it would have had to pay to the GNHWPCA because the sale never happened. Another $625,000, can be saved from “municipal departments,” the mayor said. More money can be saved, he said, with furlough days for non-union employees.

These savings, Collier said, would bring the town close to bridging the $5.3 million gap.

Late in the meeting, after most in the gallery had drifted off, council chairwoman Beth Daponte released the council’s own ideas for savings, but she was quick to say that this plan “was largely symbolic” because it fell far short of closing the gap.

The council, agreeing that it needed more time to consider the options, tabled the budget matter for the February meeting.