Published January 28. 2014 4:00AM
Calling for a "reinvigorated state-local partnership," the statewide association of 156 cities and towns released its legislative goals on Monday.
State support for regionalization, educational equality and state aid to communities are among the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities' goals for the upcoming legislative session.
Towns and cities should be given more incentives to band together to provide regional services under CCM's agenda, which also calls for equitable distribution of resources to underfunded education programs and a boost to school security.
"We need to be partnering with the state on funding programs on the local level," said Norwich City Manager Alan Bergren, who serves on CCM's Board of Directors.
CCM calls for recouping some revenue lost to towns during last year's budget adoption process, restoring shared taxes to communities and postponing changes in the tax structure - such as eliminating the car tax - until the state finishes its tax study.
Cities and towns have to balance their budgets every year but are limited as to how they raise funds for public safety and essential services, such as plowing streets, said Bergren. Any changes to the local tax structure would need to come after much analysis, including the proposal to eliminate the car tax, he said - though he understands the tax is not anybody's favorite.
"The towns and cities would need to make up for that [eliminated tax] through real estate taxes," he said, which could in turn significantly increase taxes, for example, on a local business.
CCM also wants assistance for "struggling core communities" by ensuring educational equity across the state and measures, such as investment in early childhood education.
While CCM is committed to providing quality of help in all communities, Bergren said, the state can't be successful without taking care of its urban centers. Cities have a higher concentration of people but also tend to provide services - including regional services - that a lot of small towns do not.
CCM wants more incentives for regional initiatives and new powers for councils of governments to offer services and make land use decisions on regionally significant projects. CCM wants the state Office of Policy and Management to have a larger role in helping councils of governments and towns with planning and technical assistance.
The Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments chairman, Kevin Lyden, said having such planning or technical assistance to regional agencies is helpful, especially now that the council will represent more than 280,000 residents in the region with the addition of Windham and Lebanon.
"Whether it's economic development or infrastructure needs, such as roads and sewers, or future planning needs, it's just a better use - or efficiency - of our funds," said Lyden, the Salem first selectman. As an example he cited the possibility of towns sharing emergency dispatch. If New London, East Lyme and Waterford, for example, find they could benefit from cost savings or safety issues, state incentives could be helpful in supporting them, he said.
Under the CCM proposal for "Minimum Budget Requirement," the state would raise the current formula that determines how much a school district can reduce its budget if it can document savings from regional efficiencies.
The towns that would benefit include those that send their students to high schools in larger towns. Salem sends its students to East Lyme High School. Norwich Free Academy serves students from several small municipalities besides Norwich.
CCM is also looking to reduce "unfunded" or "underfunded mandates." SCCOG has identified the teacher evaluation system as such a mandate which could cause local education budgets to rise, said Lyden.
"Any efficiency is going to help the economy," he said. Removing mandates that are unfunded can decrease the local burden and sharing regional services can stretch tax dollars by providing the same level of service on a wider scale, he said. But he added that such regional efforts would still need to be looked at closely to make sure they are prudent.
North Stonington First Selectman Nick Mullane said legislative priorities are creating good-paying jobs and improving the business climate, while the region tries to recover from downturns in the housing market, pharmaceutical industry and casinos. He said he supports such initiatives such as reducing unfunded mandates, keeping state aid to communities and raising the prevailing wage threshold to make the state more competitive, as it faces competition from Rhode Island and Massachusetts.