Bridgeport battles back from the edge
In 1991, Bridgeport, the largest city in Connecticut, was reeling from the notoriety of an historic bankruptcy filing and a $20 million operating deficit. Bridgeport was the largest city ever to seek bankruptcy protection in the courts, a step that forever changed the image of the city.
Government morale was at an all-time low, and residents faced the city’s darkest days, as people and businesses left in record numbers. Crime rose as employment fell. Taxes shot up, since property values dropped as a result of the bankruptcy filing.
Bridgeport was close to losing Chase Manhattan Bank, Southern Connecticut Gas Co. and Remington Arms, the city’s largest corporate citizens, all of which said they could not afford to stay in such a high-cost city that many believed was on its last legs.
However, the city withdrew the bankruptcy petition in 1991 and began cutting costs and streamlining various department functions. It negotiated more than $10 million in concessions from city unions and raised another $10 million by selling many of its tax liens.
There have been several other key steps in Bridgeport’s turnaround:
* Self-insurance. Bridgeport saved tens of millions of dollars by instituting a self-insurance policy rather than relying on several insurance carriers. An analysis by the city’s budget office shows that health insurance for employees would have consumed more than 40 percent of the city’s annual budget by 2006 under the previous benefit plan;
* Welfare reform. Worker training was offered to welfare recipients. After nine months of receiving cash benefits, recipients were disqualified from the program for three months. Initially, this saved the city over $600,000. But more importantly, the city’s welfare rolls shrank as able-bodied adults found jobs; and
* Privatization. The city privatized its golf course, generating $600,000 in revenues a year, and is in the process of selling the Water Pollution Control Authority to private investors.
In addition, the state took over Bridgeport’s transportation center, saving the city $500,000 a year in salaries, security fees and insurance.
Still, the budget needed “modernization.” The city’s financial plans were still being written under the assumption that Bridgeport was a booming industrial city where hundreds of manufacturers were shouldering the tax burden.
But Bridgeport was no longer such a city. In reality, almost 60 percent of the tax base was residential property, so the budget needed to be written with homeowners in mind. The city needed to replace the government machinery that focused on the needs of sprawling factories with an entity that better served the residents by cleaning parks and neighborhoods, improving public schools and expanding the police force.
In the end, Chase Manhattan, Southern Connecticut Gas and Remington stayed in the city. Bridgeport found land for the expansion of several existing companies and has also been able to attract new businesses. Officials recently finished writing the city’s fifth consecutive balanced budget and the fourth without any tax increases.
Bridgeport has cut spending for discretionary programs and has received investment-grade bond ratings from Fitch, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s. Consequently, it now has access to bond markets and is therefore able to begin paying for many much-needed capital improvements.
So Bridgeport is now poised for its next big step. As the year 2000 approaches, the residents and local government are working to build a city that can, once again, be a regional force