O’Brien, Rossi spar in West Haven over contested budget deficit

By Mark Zaretsky, New Haven Register

WEST HAVEN >> The city has a $14.5 million hole in its current year budget as a result of the latest state budget outlined in Gov. Dannel Malloy’s Executive Order 58, which will reduce the amount of state aid West Haven receives by $6.59 million, Democratic mayoral challenger Nancy Rossi says.

The city will receive $46.19 million in state aid under the executive order, down from $52.78 million last year — but there’s an additional shortfall because West Haven also won’t receive $8 million in projected additional state revenue that Mayor Ed O’Brien’s administration relied on when it crafted this year’s budget, Rossi said in a news release.

But O’Brien said in a written response that while it’s true that the recent Executive Order does reduce state aid to West Haven for education, “this change was anticipated and accounted for. My office along with the Board of Education and our finance director are in constant contact with the Governor’s office and the CT Office of Policy and Management,” he said.

“We received notice that these changes were coming and worked to adjust this fiscal year’s education budget to work with the revised state aid,” O’Brien said. “This has already been completed and we will be able to work with the revised amount until a state budget is passed.”

Rossi, a CPA and former City Council member who spent several years as the council’s Finance Committee’s chairwoman, said that she and others “warned Mayor O’Brien and the City Council members at the budget hearings and during City Council meetings not to overestimate revenue and to take the $8 million out of the budget.”

But “the requests were all ignored,” she said. “It was pretty clear that we would have been lucky if we received the same amount from the state as last year.

“The mayor and City Council don’t have a contingency plan to deal with this financial disaster,” said Rossi, who will challenge O’Brien in a Democratic primary election on Sept. 12. “The mayor and council just authorized $150 million in borrowing which included money for operating budget deficits. Mayor O’Brien has not balanced a single budget and his deficits get bigger each year.”

O’Brien said that “a key detail” of the Governor’s latest adjustment “is that it is not permanent. The Governor’s Executive Order only stands until the General Assembly passes a budget which is expected within a month,” he said. “In the absence of a state budget, the Governor is only authorized to make cuts to funding to ensure the budget stays balanced.

“In this regard, West Haven made out fairly well with this Executive Order as many cities and towns are facing completely zeroed out Education Cost Sharing funds,” he said. “As a school district with a significant amount of low-income families and a high percentage of students with special needs, the state understands that West Haven has a larger cost burden than most other municipalities.

He also pointed out that “grants to Alliance Districts, which West Haven is one of, will remain unchanged.”

According to Rossi, “most municipalities were conservative in building their budgets and had contingencies in place in case of reductions. Mayor O’Brien and his administration are fiscally irresponsible and they have put us in danger of insolvency.”

While “there is still a chance that the legislature will pass a budget for the current fiscal year where we can have a chance to get some funding back ... the problem is that the earliest a budget will be voted on is mid-September,” Rossi said.

O’Brien said that “the Mayor’s Office, the Finance Department, and the Board of Education have taken two important steps to ensure our public education system continues to thrive even with uncertainty in the state budget. First, as mentioned before, we have already made adjustments to this year’s education budget to continue normal operations under the temporarily revised state aid without running a deficit,” he said.

“Second, we remain in contact with the Governor’s Office, OPM, and our State Representatives and Senators to ensure West Haven’s needs are met in the final state budget,” he said.

“During my administration, West Haven’s public education system has thrived,” O’Brien said. “Test scores are rising consistently, many of our schools are being recognized as Schools of Distinction, and our students are getting the facilities they deserve to learn in as schools are being repaired more consistently than ever before and we begin construction on the new and improved West Haven High School.

He charged that “Nancy does not know the details of the situation we are in and would rather send out panicked press releases than reach out and learn how we are handling the situation. While Nancy worries about her next press release, my focus will be on fighting for our students every day at both the local and state level as well as working to ensure the tremendous results we have produced so far continue,” he said.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican City Councilman David Riccio, R-at-large, in the general election on Nov. 7. Rossi also has qualified for the ballot with an independent slate under the A Better Choice Party and could conceivably run again in the general election even if she loses the primary.

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