Municipalities suffered during long budget fight

Published on Tuesday, 5 December 2017 22:00
Written by the Danbury News-Times

Cities and towns throughout Connecticut have been buffeted around by the state’s budget uncertainty for months on end. It was challenging enough to develop local budgets in the spring, when the General Assembly had no alternative to the first budget proposed by Gov. Dannel Malloy in February.

Local leaders were left to build their budgets on wishes and fears.

The governor’s first budget scared municipal leaders because it called for shifting 30 percent of teacher pension costs from the state down to the local districts, which would have pushed up local property taxes.

The General Assembly didn’t endorse that seismic shift - though no local mayor or first selectman could have been sure of that outcome when predicting the level of state aid for their own budgets to go into effect last July 1.

For a while, state legislators considered abolishing local car taxes. While perhaps more equitable for taxpayers, the sudden move would have been a devastating loss of revenue for local governments. For a while, state legislators considered raising the sales tax slightly and giving the difference to municipalities - a boost and revenue diversification. That idea went nowhere.

The ups and downs, hopes and fears, played out as the General Assembly failed to agree on a budget until mid-September. But it was vetoed by the governor, who proposed other budgets that would have cut state aid, among other items. Finally - finally - after 123 days the General Assembly passed a budget that met Malloy’s approval.

Local leaders at last had a definitive picture of how much state aid they would receive, which was not as harsh at it had seemed in February.

But then, like a bad dream that won’t end, the governor on Friday cut another $880 million in agency funding and municipal aid to balance the state budget. One can argue about the necessity, and possibly the General Assembly will attempt to overturn his decision, but they will have to find savings elsewhere.

Municipalities need more predictability, Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti, told the Hearst Connecticut Media’s editorial board with leaders of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities this week. Lauretti, a declared Republican candidate for governor, is a member of CCM’s legislative committee.

This year’s budget roller coaster is a stark lesson that state budget preparation must be done differently. It simply wasn’t fair to cities and towns.

Legislative leaders should find ways to give relief. Here is one suggestion: Reset the percentage of reserve funds that could be protected in arbitration.

That may not sound exciting, but it is important. To protect bond ratings, municipalities should have two to three months in reserves. CCM Executive Director Joe DeLong said his group advocated for 15 percent of those reserves to be off limits for arbitration award consideration, and it was in the budget vetoed by the governor. The new budget amended the wording, which opens municipalities to greater risk.

At the very least, state legislators need to correct that formula to help cities and towns out of this endless budget nightmare.



Posted in New Britain Herald, Editorials on Tuesday, 5 December 2017 22:00. Updated: Tuesday, 5 December 2017 22:02.