A group of 17 mid-size Connecticut cities and towns plans Tuesday to introduce a legislative agenda calling for relief from unfunded mandates, new revenue sources and fast-track approval for local projects.
“These are radical times,” Mayor Art Ward. “We need to think away from the norm” to help taxpayers get through them.
The group intends to unveil its agenda at a state Capitol news conference Tuesday in hopes of convincing Gov. Jodi Rell and the legislature to take measures to relieve the growing fiscal strain on Connecticut’s mid-size municipalities.
Officials in the towns say that the eight most troubled cities, including New Britain, get plenty of attention from lawmakers, but the problems of the next tier of municipalities are too often overlooked.
According to a Dec. 30 email from West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka to his counterparts in other smaller cities, the group should try to convince the state to “suspend all unfunded mandates for a minimum of two years.”
Among the mandates Slifka said the cities and towns need help from are laws raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year-olds, a requirement to offer in-school suspensions to most students and a delay in required revaluations.
But Ward said that the changes that would most help are mostly in the field of education, where a barrage of mandates adds millions of dollars to the city’s school budget. Many of those mandates, however, come down from the federal government.
School Superintendent Philip Streifer has been one of the leading voices in Connecticut education in his calls for relief from the many mandates, at least until the financial crisis passes. He said that waiving testing, professional development days and other requirements would make a large difference.
As it is, to keep pace with the current educational offerings would add 2 mills to the mill rate in Bristol this year, the mayor said, adding that more state aid or mandate relief is a necessity to bring that number down.
“It’s going to have to come down,” Ward said.
Ward said that what the small cities group, which doesn’t have a formal name yet, aims to do is to try to ensure that “somebody looks responsibly at the impact on taxpayers” of so many existing policies.
Slifka’s memo said that municipalities should also have the opportunity to “directly share in new revenue sources” the state may develop, such as an income tax or sales tax hike.
“While we do not endorse the concept of raising taxes to deal with the current crisis,” Slifka said, “to the extend that the state enacts new revenue streams or expands upon current ones” a portion of the money raised “should be set aside for direct distribution to municipalities.”
Slifa said that state transportation and environmental regulators should fast track any projects and permits sought for projects scheduled for 2009 so that bidding can be done this spring.
With infrastructure projects likely to be funded by the new administration, Ward said, it’s important they not be stymied by bureaucrats. He said that any federal cash should flow straight to municipalities to hasten timetables for “shovel ready” projects.
Included in the new group are Bristol, East Hartford, East Haven, Enfield, Fairfield, Groton, Hamden, Manchester, Meriden, Middletown, New London, Stratford, Torrington, Vernon, West Hartford, and West Haven.
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