Published March 28. 2014 4:00AM
The New London City Council will need many questions answered before it should entertain approving four ordinances authorizing the borrowing of up to $6.6 million - not to build anything, but to address long-standing fiscal problems that make it difficult for the city to pay its bills.
Essentially, the administration is asking the council to borrow its way out of the money problems. That deserves a skeptical response.
Jeff Smith, the finance director, points to several causes for the problems.
There is the collapse of the city's fund balance. Cities maintain this rainy day fund to provide fiscal breathing room. The balance, which stood at $6.3 million in 2011, dropped to $1.4 million at the end of fiscal year 2013, ending last June 30. Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio blames this largely on deficit spending before he took office in December 2011 as the first mayor elected in the change to a mayor-led government.
Mr. Smith reports that between 2007 and 2011 the city over spent a number of capital projects by a total of $1 million.
Most alarming, the finance director reports that the city failed to collect about $5.3 million in state reimbursements for school construction projects dating back to 2000 and $1.6 million in matching grants for two city projects - Veterans Field and the Parade reconstruction - because the city did not provide the necessary paperwork to the state.
These overruns and the failure to pursue and obtain state matching grants resulted in deficits in the capital (construction) fund. That has been offset by tapping the general fund, meant to cover the day-to-day operations of the city. With the fund balance largely exhausted, however, the city found itself in a negative cash position - more dollars going out than coming in.
Mr. Smith tells us he has dealt with this over the last two years by borrowing on a short-term basis to meet the city's financial obligations, with the assumption that the city could recapture some of the state grants it claims it is owed. That hasn't happened.
"The initial optimism has not proved correct and the City must now move with deliberate speed to fix our balance sheet so that we can continue to pay our bills and meet our payrolls," reports Mr. Smith in a March 24 memo to Mayor Finizio and Council President Wade A. Hyslop Jr.
The proposed solution, he says, is to pass ordinances approving:
• $3.3 million in bonding in anticipation of obtaining those outstanding state grants.
• $1.1 million in bonding to cover the construction projects that went over budget.
• $1.1 million in bonding to repay the general fund for money spent on capital projects.
• $1.1 million to cover money spent in 2013 on vehicle purchases.
Mr. Smith also concludes he has authorization to issue up to $3.3 million in long- or short-term debt for the Jennings Elementary School project, dating to 2002, in which the cost exceeded available revenues by $3.7 million.
All told, Mr. Smith wants authorization to borrow up to $9.9 million. This would address the structural problems created by years of overspending on construction projects and failing to recover state grants, he said, ending the cash-flow problem, at least for now.
We offer a few questions.
How much of the $3.3 million in outstanding state grants can the city realistic expect to recapture? Mr. Smith says he does not know.
Why did the city report a $200,000 surplus at the end of fiscal-year 2013? Given the facts now presented to the council that was certainly illusory. Councilor Michael Passero expressed skepticism about the numbers at the time. It appears he had a reason.
What is the potential damage to the city's credit rating if it must borrow to pay unmet debts? What could this approach end up costing the city with interest and what will be the tax impact?
These appear to be legacy issues, problems that date to before the mayor took office. That distinction is likely to be lost on weary New London taxpayers, who have had to stomach much bad fiscal news since Mayor Finizio arrived in office. However it originated, the problem is now his and the council's.
In the end, the council may have no choice but to swallow the fiscal director's bitter fiscal pill, but not until they are assured it is the only viable prescription.