Has Malloy launched 'battle of the century'?

To know how a Connecticut politician would react to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposal to help the state’s struggling cities, you just had to know where they were from.

“I think that we’ve arrived at a time when the options are limited and I think this proposal reflects that, a new era of finding how we can … work together, find cooperation among our towns and cities,” said New London’s freshman Democratic state representative, Chris Soto, who talked to me after the governor’s budget address.

The “proposal” that Soto references is Malloy's call, contained in his budget message, to significantly reduce state aid now directed at communities with healthy tax bases, relatively low taxes and ample budgetary surpluses and direct it to cities with struggling schools and which have trouble paying the bills despite the back-breaking property taxes they assess.

There may be no place in the state that more dramatically illustrates this approach than Groton and its sister community across the Thames River, New London. Beginning with the next fiscal year, Groton would see a 46 percent drop in state aid, about a $14.7 million reduction. New London would receive 24 percent more state aid, an $8.8 million increase.

Freshman Republican Sen. Heather Somers, whose eight-town district includes Groton – it’s her home – was not buying into the Robin Hood plan.

“Towns that have been responsible, have lived within their means, have developed their economies well … they are supposed to bear more of the burden for others who have not?” asked Somers, rhetorically, her tone of voice suggesting she had never heard of something so ridiculous.

While competence in leadership is a factor, it is hardly the biggest factor why services are better and taxes lower in Groton, Waterford and East Lyme than they are in New London and Norwich. Groton, Waterford and East Lyme’s tax rates are 21.73, 26.78 and 25.36 respectively, according to the Office of Policy and Management, while Norwich’s sits at 41.22 mills and New London's at 40.46.

Groton has Electric Boat and Pfizer, industries that have shrunk or grown over time, but persisted. Waterford and East Lyme developed post-industrial age, using zoning and the highways to grow, but control, development and population as they transformed from farmlands to suburbs.

New London and Norwich have old housing stocks and public housing, because cities are where such housing was built during the war on poverty. Thus, they have larger low-income populations with the resultant human services demands.

Both cities have a disproportionate number of public and nonprofit institutions, not subject to property taxation. New London, small in area, has limited space to expand its commercial space, while former economically productive parcels in Norwich are now brownfields, with vacant mills a reminder of the city’s heydays.

A recent court ruling, now on appeal to the state Supreme Court, concluded the inequities in providing an education between urban centers and their affluent neighbors violates the state constitutional requirement to provide a public education. Besides education, it is in Connecticut’s best interests to see a rebirth of its cities, a necessary component to getting its economy growing again.

Veteran state Rep. Diana Urban, a Democrat who represents Stonington and North Stonington, said Malloy’s call for suburbia to sacrifice to provide tax relief for the cities may launch "the battle of the century."

“This is the governor doing his first shot across our bow, I get that. It’s a pretty heavy-duty shot,” said Urban after listening to the governor’s address. “This is going to be a battle royale.”

But Urban knows where her loyalties lie. Her job, she said, “is to try to figure out how I can keep my towns solvent.”

In the middle of it all will be new House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin.

“We all have a vested interest in having vibrant economic centers, especially in our cities,” he said. “We need to have a Hartford, and a Bridgeport, and a New Haven that are doing well.”

High-tech and investment businesses and the young, well-paid professionals they attract are trending to lively, modern urban centers, he said. But can he find the votes to move enough money to lower the tax rates and pay for improvements in those cities, a needed step to encourage redevelopment?

“We have 151 members here in the House, we have 36 up in the Senate. We all represent a constituency. And our districts want to know what you are doing to help them,” Aresimowicz said.

That sounds like no.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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