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Hartford - Mayors and first selectmen who gathered at the Capitol Wednesday to ask lawmakers to maintain funding for municipalities heard some welcome news.
The Education Committee restored the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) for state-owned properties to municipalities' general fund rather than the Education Cost Sharing grant. The committee also restored the $25 million for public school transportation grants and adjusted the ECS grant to send more money to lower-income communities.
This "would be the first step in rejecting the governor's proposal and restoring the $74 million in PILOT reimbursement," said Torrington Mayor Ryan Bingham, who is also president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.
The changes proposed by the Education Committee are now before the Appropriations Committee, which must vote on all of its bills by April 23.
"We are in crunch time, two and a half weeks to go," said Jim Finley, CCM executive director.
On Wednesday morning, CCM members met with legislative leadership from both parties.
"Senator Williams (Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn) indicated that they are going to be looking to make further cuts than those proposed by the governor, some of which will get into the marrow of a number of state programs," Finley said.
Finley said CCM members were also encouraged by their discussions with rank-and-file legislators and committee leadership.
Education Committee co-chairman and state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, said, "We felt the transportation program that the governor was proposing was not fair."
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had proposed reducing the public school transportation funding to $5 million, from $25 million a year. Under his plan, cities and towns would have had to propose regional school transportation programs to obtain the money.
And although the PILOT funds were removed from education, the committee provided the same amount of funding for education as the governor has proposed, she said.
"We thought those PILOT monies were supposed to go to the general government, that is the way they were established, and we really didn't want to see general government dollars fighting with education dollars, and that is what we felt would have happened," Stillman said.
The committee also proposed changing the ECS grant formula to include median household incomes in order to send more money to lower-income communities, Stillman said. The changes reflect recommendations from the ECS task force, she said.
"It was the best that we could have hoped for, and again, now the decision is before the appropriations and finance committees," Finley said. "But for the Education Committee to take the stand that they did really sort of underscores their sensitivity to municipal concerns over the governor's budget proposal."
Malloy also proposed exempting vehicles worth less than $28,571 from property taxes. This would reduce revenues to towns and cities by approximately $633 million, according to CCM. The loss of local revenues would in turn cause property taxes for homeowners and businesses to increase, local leaders have said.
"It was like a high-five when he told us he was holding municipalities harmless and then a punch in the gut when he said he was going to take away municipal aid in terms of property taxes," Bingham said.
But the governor's proposal to implement the property tax for vehicles statewide by the tax year beginning July 1, 2014, is dead, Finley said.
After participating in discussions with the Municipal Opportunities & Regional Efficiencies Commission, Finley said, "There won't be a cliff proposal to eliminate the motor vehicle property tax in one year. We are working with the MORE Commission to figure out if there is an alternative way to do that over time that helps municipalities cushion the blow."
Bristol Mayor Art Ward said he urged legislators to get rid of or modify some of the 1,200 state mandates for towns and cities.
For example, the mandate that requires towns and cities to post "legal notices" or meeting announcements or budgets costs taxpayers approximately $5 million annually statewide, said Kachina Walsh-Weaver, state relations manager of CCM.
Municipal leaders would like to be able to post a short announcement about their meeting in newspapers and direct readers to their municipal websites, said Leo Paul, first selectman of Litchfield.