North Stonington - Members of the boards of Selectmen, Finance and Education along with Stonington First Selectman Ed Haberek Jr. met with state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, and state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, Tuesday evening to discuss legislative priorities for the area.
Maynard and Urban listened to town officials enumerate their concerns and wish lists as legislators begin work on next year's state budget, which included maintaining state aid to municipalities, relieving the burden of unfunded mandates and finding ways to increase revenue to mitigate property tax hikes.
The representatives and town officials repeatedly referenced the difficulty small towns - and particularly small, rural towns in southeastern Connecticut - face in Hartford, where larger cities dictate policy decisions that either have little to do with towns like North Stonington or overlook them entirely.
"We do face an uphill struggle as representatives of a rural district," Maynard said. "We do have to address things that are largely driven by a lot of our urban problems."
Haberek said that legislators often pass over this corner of the state, forgetting that southeastern Connecticut is "not southwestern Rhode Island."
"They kind of forget that we're out here," he said.
Board of Finance Chairman Dan Spring recalled the town's struggle to pass its budget for the current fiscal year - a drawn-out, labored process that took five months and four referendums, while residents balked at their rising property tax rates.
Spring said North Stonington was the only town between New York and Boston that has two exits off of Interstate 95 and "nothing going for it." All the while, Stonington's Route 2 stretch has been filling out with businesses over time, he said.
Revenue for the town has decreased, Spring said, while expenditures have stayed the same or grown.
"We're ready to listen to collaborations with other towns, share resources, but we need more economic development in the town of North Stonington," he said.
On the schools side, Board of Education Vice Chairman Dave McCord said unfunded state mandates are a major source of financial woe for the town, including changes to school lunch programs, special education requirements and a new teacher evaluation program that Superintendent Peter Nero said is being implemented too quickly.
"Sometimes, when we get things from the state, you wonder, are the people up at the state education, Board of Education office, just sitting there trying to think up things to make it more difficult?" McCord said.
On the flipside, Maynard said the $650 million a year the state spends in school construction reimbursement is one of the runaway costs - a consideration that directly affects North Stonington as officials discuss major renovations on the aging Wheeler Middle/High School building.
Maynard floated the question of the relative worth of keeping open the smallest high school in the state.
Board of Education member Darren Robert argued that the academic success of the school speaks for itself, and Urban reiterated that the town had already made its decision.
The representatives and town officials also spoke broadly of the state's economic future, with Maynard citing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's plans for investment in natural gas and energy manufacturing.
While Urban and Maynard offered no specific solutions, they urged the town officials to go to Hartford with residents and press their demands in person in the same way larger cities have already established their presence there.