As we await Pedro Segarra’s 2016 budget for the city of Hartford, one thing is clear: no matter how the Segarra Administration manages to close the $40 million budget gap next year, Hartford will face the same challenge every year until we make bigger changes.
To address Hartford’s structural deficit, here are three things we need to do now: fight to change the formula for Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs), so that Hartford gets fairly compensated for our non-taxable property; pursue tax-generating development opportunities, including the South Meadows; and get serious about financial management in City Hall.
Nonprofits and government buildings occupy more than half of the property in Hartford. They offer tremendous value for the city, the region, and the state. But Hartford cannot function when half of its property is exempt from taxation. Connecticut’s legislative leaders have shown an openness to reforming PILOT this year. We should seize the opportunity and advocate aggressively for some basic principles of reform — not to impose new burdens on non-profits, but to ensure that Hartford is treated fairly.
At a minimum, the PILOT rate for state property, currently the lowest rate for all non-taxable property, should be increased, so that Hartford is not penalized for being the capital city. Cities with a greater percentage of non-taxable property should receive a greater share of PILOT payments. And cities with greater poverty, and therefore a greater need for services, should get higher PILOT payments than more affluent towns.
Even as we fight for PILOT reform, we have to get our grand list growing again. The city owns hundreds of properties, and hundreds more are vacant or blighted throughout Hartford’s neighborhoods. We need to work block by block to prepare those properties for sale and development, in partnership with neighborhood organizations. But if we really want to grow our grand list, we need to look for major opportunities — not net money-losers, like the baseball stadium, but growth that produces real revenue.
In the South Meadows, there are hundreds of acres of land ripe for redevelopment, along the river and near the highway. Today, that land is occupied by an underutilized airport and an obsolete and polluting trash-burning power plant.
To develop the South Meadows, we will have to obtain state and/or federal approvals to close the airport, modernize and relocate the power plant, and convey the land to Hartford. But if we can work with the state to overcome those obstacles, the South Meadows would attract bidders on a national stage and could represent the most significant boost to the grand list in decades — without any subsidy. A creative developer could incorporate energy generation, and even a micro-grid, to transform an already-attractive development opportunity into something extraordinary.
PILOT reform and opening up new areas like the South Meadows for development will require the support of officials at the state level. But getting our own house in order doesn’t require anyone’s help. We just need hands-on management and accountability.
In the last few weeks, we’ve heard about the Segarra administration hiring former employees as contractors, immediately after retirement and at higher pay; literally losing track of tens of millions of dollars in loans; and letting top-tier employees fill City Hall with family members. If we’re going to continue to seek state assistance — as we must — we have to demonstrate that we are good stewards of the money we have.
We also have to get serious about government restructuring and cost management. There is a commission tasked with identifying restructuring opportunities and efficiencies, but it was never prioritized, and little real work has been done. And we don’t need a commission to point out obvious opportunities, such as consolidating some functions currently performed by both the Board of Education and the city administration and actively managing healthcare costs.
Let’s start fighting on all three of these fronts right now — reforming PILOT, opening up the South Meadows, and getting our own house in order. Fixing these structural problems takes leadership, persistence, and hands-on management, in partnership with Hartford’s strong legislative delegation. But if we don’t seize these opportunities now, the city will face deficits as far as the eye can see.
Luke Bronin is running for mayor of Hartford.
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