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Seeking new ways to help towns, cities

Published March 09. 2013 4:00AM

Given the fiscal pressures that have confronted the state and its municipalities the last several years, the resistance to fundamental change has been remarkable, and perhaps a testament to how deeply ingrained in Connecticut are the concepts of home rule and individual autonomy for every town and city.

The new speaker of the House, Rep. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, is once again attempting to find ways to encourage regional initiatives that can reduce costs, eliminate needless duplication, and improve the efficiency of local government. Yet without restoring true county government, which seems to have no political support, it is questionable how much can be achieved.

Still, Rep. Sharkey's efforts are worthwhile and they may have greater urgency this session. Connecticut again confronts a deficit projection, this time about $2.1 billion over the next two years. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he will not support raising state taxes again, perhaps recognizing that would be no way to prepare for 2014, when he will stand for re-election if he so chooses. The concession deal with the state labor unions provided some upfront savings, but now guarantees raises and no layoffs. With few options, a cut in municipal aid seems the obvious alternative to balance the books.

Gov. Malloy has proposed maintaining local aid, sort of. His budget would move more state funding under the ECS (Educational Cost Sharing) umbrella and into grants for building and infrastructure projects. That approach may be good for education and generating construction jobs, but it will not help towns and cities pay for government services, such as police, fire and public works, town leaders complain. Meanwhile the governor's proposal to also end the car tax on most vehicles, a major source of property tax revenue for municipalities, has local elected leaders howling.

Rep. Sharkey wants to match any reductions in municipal aid over the next couple of years with legislation that provides local leaders with more ways of dealing with the cuts, aside from raising property taxes. And while Gov. Malloy's proposal to ax the car tax is not likely to gain legislative support, there is interest in finding a way to phase out the tax. But again, the question is how to do so without causing excessive harm to municipal budgets.

To try to generate ideas and support for helping cities and towns reduce costs and increase efficiencies, Rep. Sharkey has resurrected the MORE Commission, as in Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies. But the speaker is avoiding a mistake of the past. The first MORE Commission, which he chaired in 2010, was a creation of and staffed only by House Democrats. This time Rep. Sharkey has appointed a bipartisan panel.

The prior commission had some modest success in getting legislation passed. Some school systems have taken advantage of a law, resulting from the MORE Commission, which allows two or more boards of education to jointly purchase health insurance, achieving savings on premiums because of larger employee pools. Less effective were incentive grants meant to encourage regional initiatives.

Rep. Sharkey says his commission will be looking at potentially giving municipalities more taxing authority. They are now largely dependent on property taxes. Another working group will again look at regional cooperation to reduce administrative overhead and achieve economies of scale. The commission will review state mandates with the goal of trimming some - town leaders have long complained they drive up spending - and examine the potential for regional approaches to providing public education.

The speaker made a good choice in naming Rep. Tim Larson as chair of the commission. The Democrat is a former mayor of East Hartford and should bring a strong understanding of municipal operations to the work of the commission.

Rep. Sharkey has set an ambitious goal of having the commission's recommendations converted into legislation in time for action before the session ends June 5.

That's a tight schedule, but with the need for genuine change in local governance, lawmakers should have plenty of incentive.

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