You use, you pay could be a new, fair approach for New London

It is unthinkable that emergency responders would not respond to a 911 call from any address in town. A cry for help anywhere brings out police, firefighters and ambulance crews, with wages, equipment and training paid for by property taxpayers. Other taxpayer-sustained services are less urgent but still indispensable to non-taxpayers alike: waste management, for instance, and keeping storm sewers unclogged.

The question of institutions paying the property taxes that support municipal emergency and quality-of-life services should not be "if" but "how much?" Nothing in life is free — except for large consumers of municipal services. The tax-exempt status granted them by the state of Connecticut  undermines the concept of shared civic responsibility.

The Day welcomes the efforts of New London officials to take the first steps in spreading the costs of municipal services to those who use them. The city is not at this time proposing to collect for the costs of police or other emergency services, but ideas for charging all users a fee for trash pickup and recycling and for stormwater discharge upgrades are fair, sensible and overdue. It's a start at involuntary sharing of expenses by the non-taxpayers that benefit from them.

The state needs to acknowledge that its good intentions for Payment in Lieu of Taxes — PILOT funds — are paving the way to hell for its urban centers. It is not just a matter of fairness, although that rankles.

The ultimate solution is statewide tax reform, but until the General Assembly has the intestinal fortitude for that, it needs to find ways to unshackle cities like New London. Too many entities are classified as exempt from property taxes. To worsen the municipal math, the state has steadily reduced the fraction of the replacement it offers for taxes that would otherwise be collected. New London Mayor Michael Passero goes so far as to say that the state "creates" its Distressed Municipality rankings.

For its cities to be livable and ultimately vibrant, Connecticut needs its legislators to re-examine the long, long list of property tax exemptions. Among the dozens of categories listed in Section 12-81 of the Connecticut General Statutes are those that can afford to pay their executives high salaries yet dodge the option of a voluntary payment in lieu of taxes. The state should require institutions classified as tax-exempt to periodically present their request and credentials for that status. If the legislature were to consider term limits for tax exemptions, some institutions might suddenly find it in their best interests to negotiate substantial voluntary payments with their host towns. Local negotiations would offer a degree of control both for the payers and the municipalities.

If the statutory list of nonprofits consists of a herd of sacred cows, as it seems to, cities and towns are right to recategorize some items currently covered by taxes to services that can be paid by fees. Tax exemption does not apply to user fees.

On the table in New London is a pay-per-bag waste management program that would apply to all disposers of trash. Already heavily taxed property owners are correct when they grumble that it would add to their costs, but it brings a promise of lowered trash tipping costs that is good taxpayer news. In the near future, the city may try to implement a user-paid stormwater discharge program that has been kicking around for about a decade while New London fails to meet its mandates from the Department of Energy and Environmental Policy. That is another idea worth trying.

The Day would be interested in further arrangements that would have the large nonprofits in the city, notably Lawrence + Memorial-Yale New Haven Hospital, Connecticut College, Mitchell College and any others with sizable staffing or clientele, contribute toward the cost of police, fire and paramedics. Voluntarily stepping up is preferable, but the urgency of the bottom line for city services is inescapable. Along with the mayor, we await the next move from the city's largest nonprofit institutions.

Ultimately, however, the future of its cities' fiscal stability is in the hands of the state, which alone can reform its tax structure and renew the concept of shared responsibility.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Pat Richardson, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.


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