Municipal Leaders Say Struggling Cities and Towns Need State Help
A delegation of municipal leaders converged Tuesday in Hartford to decry issues such as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposal to cut town aid by $15.5 million and an escalating pattern of unfunded state mandates signed into law.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said Tuesday that local leaders shouldn’t expect legislators to increase levels of state aid as they work with the governor’s proposal to come up with a final budget.
“Everything is speculative at this point, but I would advise the municipalities the amount of aid the governor put in the budget should be seen as the ceiling and not the floor,” Looney said.
The Connecticut Council for Municipalities said a $7 million decrease in state grants included in the governor’s proposal affects 69 of the state’s 169 cities and towns. At the high end of the scale, Hartford stands to lose $2.5 million in state funding from last year. At the low end, the small town of Portland would lose $165.
The governor’s proposed budget also makes municipalities participating in the resident state trooper program responsible for the full cost of the program, up from 70 percent. The proposal estimates a savings of $4.6 million to the state as participating towns pick up the total expense.
A CCM report said the cuts would add to already tight municipal budgets. Survey results from 61 cities and towns indicated that more than 300 full-time positions have been cut from general government and education operations in the past two years. Respondents also pointed to such effects as less road and equipment maintenance, fewer library hours, a change of emergency service providers from paid to volunteer, reduced youth and senior services, and capital project cutbacks.
During a morning press conference organized by CCM, Durham First Selectwoman Laura Francis described the resident trooper program as a model of the type of regional programs that municipalities need to explore in order to continue to offer quality services amid declining revenue.
According to a CCM survey, the average cost increase to towns using one or more designated troopers from the Connecticut State Police would be $108,000, with the increases ranging from $39,000 to more than $310,000. The resident state trooper, while based in town, may be called out at any time to assist with other state police activity.
Francis said she wants to see the state funding reinstated and the overall program strengthened, and added that the resident trooper model is a collaborative success story that should be used more widely, not weakened through an unfair partnership with the state.
“We should not be encouraging small towns to create their own departments,” Francis said.
The local leaders at the capitol also were asking for the reinstatement of $12.7 million in revenue-sharing funds earmarked for municipalities that were raided in Malloy’s proposal to help address the state budget deficit. The money comes from a portion of sales and use taxes.
Litchfield First Selectman Leo Paul said there are 1,200 unfunded mandates — laws which municipalities are forced to follow at their own expense — already on the books and 55 more proposed in the current legislative session.
Paul and members of the municipal advocacy group support a joint resolution to require a vote of at least two-thirds of the members of each house of the General Assembly to enact any unfunded mandate.
“What that will do in itself is cause the legislature to have a more in-depth conversation and understand all of the impacts across the board for any future unfunded mandates as they vote on that bill,” Paul said.
Multiple versions of the resolution have already died this session, with one remaining before the Appropriations Committee.
Framing the local leaders’ presence at the capitol was their dissatisfaction with the property tax as a tool to fund education. They said it is an unfair burden to place on taxpayers at the local level.
Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling called it the most regressive of taxes. “It’s income blind and profit blind,” he said. “If you have a job or don’t have a job, your taxes become due. If you make a profit or don’t make a profit, your taxes become due.”
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, who co-chairs one of the two budget writing committees, said she is sensitive to the needs of taxpayers — but “nothing is off the table” when it comes to the budget the lawmakers will eventually pass.
“We’re doing our best to cause the least harm and try not to drive up property taxes because we understand that for both businesses and homeowners, that’s a really regressive tax,” Bye said. “Cities and towns don’t come ahead of funding for people with disabilities. We’re looking out for people and places. Towns are places. Human services are people, so they’re both in areas that are priorities for us.”