Facing a relatively tame audience of education advocates seeking more school aid and taxpayers exhorting budget cuts, the City Council’s Budget and Appropriations Committee Thursday night heard from about one dozen speakers addressing Mayor Bill Finch’s proposed spending plan that calls for a 2.7 mil increase to finance $7 million more in additional school spending and millions more in city pension obligations. The council chambers crowd of about 40 was thin in comparison to past years, especially in light of the mayor’s proposed tax increase. Finch had previously conducted three public neighborhood sessions on the budget, which may have removed some steam from the council public hearing. Is he Dr. Finch, the anesthetist?
Superintendent of Schools Paul Vallas stressed the need to establish a partnership with vocational schools so city kids attend public school in the morning and vocational school in the afternoon. He also touched on high school seniors taking college classes so that they’re better prepared for college following graduation. On finances, he highlighted the need for $7 million as a funding increase. “This is a one-time increase.” He said savings will be achieved through efficiencies such as consolidation of departments. “We will not come back for further tax increases.”
Vallas emphasized this request for $7 million was a one-timer to stabilize school finances. There is a justifiable concern, he said, if you provide an increase this year another increase will be requested in the future. “We feel confident that this will address the (funding) issue once and for all.”
He talked about partnerships with private-sector institutions and regional colleges to bring more resources to the district and increase opportunities for the kids, new curriculum instructional materials, benchmark assessment systems and supplementing classrooms with the latest technology.
Vallas said Bridgeport has become a national model for reform, emphasizing the city cannot afford to shortchange the children.
Pat Fardy, a resident of the Upper East Side, claimed $5 million could be cut from the budget through eliminating “ghost positions,” jobs budgeted but have not been filled. “Look at those departments, cut those positions … this is a big amount.”
Her husband Andy Fardy, a retired city firefighter, insisted the council demand regular financial reports from city budget director Tom Sherwood.
City budget watchdog, John Marshall Lee, a resident of Black Rock, urged the council to cut the ghost positions so the education budget can be funded. He also called on the council to demand monthly financial reports per City Charter requirement.
North End resident Jacqui Kelleher, a member of the reconstituted Board of Education, stressed a transformation is taking place to improve the school system. The Sacred Heart University professor said Vallas’ education “model is historic.” She said a resurrected school system will increase property values. “It will drive the message home that our children are worthy. His vision will transform lives.”
Giacomo Gates, a city musician who graduated Central High School in 1966, said most people in Bridgeport don’t receive Greenwich incomes. He said he’s “looking for a break in taxes, not a raise. Please consider that.”
Betty Martin, an eight-year resident, said “I’m a single woman against raising taxes. I cannot afford it.”
Mark Trojanowski, a city realtor, said residents are struggling. He cited many foreclosures in the city that would be exacerbated by a tax increase. “My heart goes out to you because you have a gargantuan task. Please don’t raise the taxes any more.” He said he supports education, but taxes are already too high and residents cannot afford to pay more. “People are working two or three jobs … When you raise taxes you’re pushing Bridgeport further down in the hole.”
John Gomes, 2011 mayoral candidate, who has spent weeks in front of City Hall protesting the mayor’s proposed budget, criticized Finch for accepting pay increases since taking office more than four years ago. He said he supports education, but charged Finch “using education as a crutch in the budget is irresponsible. Let’s find the money somewhere else.”
Don Greenberg, a college professor and resident of Black Rock expressed skepticism about the mayor’s education resolve. He said the mayor had been in office for four years “and didn’t say boo about how bad schools were.” Greenberg said if he really thought the schools would be improved with $7 million more he would support it.
Jennifer Buchanan, a mortgage professional from Black Rock, said she would not be surprised if this “tax increase goes through residents will stop paying their mortgages. Please take this budget back to the mayor, please don’t raise our taxes. If you can give the money to the schools without raising taxes do that.”
The hearing started at 6 p.m. and lasted 90 minutes. All seven members of the council committee were in attendance. The committee is expected to vote on the budget next week and then the full council on May 7, but three council members Leticia Colon, Lydia Martinez and Michelle Lyons may not be there. They are scheduled for a trip to the Dominican Republic for a ceremony donating two decommissioned firetrucks to that Caribbean nation’s government.