McLachlan: align town, state budget cycles

March 6, 2017


Sen. Michael A. McLachlan (R-24) hopes a bill he introduced in January to better align the state and town budget processes could make this the last year towns are put in such a difficult position. The governor’s “disaster” of a proposal, he said, helped garner support to finally make a change that has been talked about for years.

The bill would require the state to finalize the appropriations part of its budget by March 1, so that towns could know how much aid they could count on before putting their budgets to a vote in April or May. The state currently doesn’t finish its budget until June at the earliest and sometimes as late as September, McLachlan said.

The governor’s two-year, $40.5 billion budget proposal includes major cuts in state aid to smaller towns and municipalities, while increasing grants to many cities. But that proposal, McLachlan said, has been labeled “DOA” by many legislators, causing towns to question whether they should incorporate the cuts in their own drafts.

“In the past, towns usually use the governor’s proposed grants [when drafting a budget] and the legislature passes a budget that’s higher, so they’re always safe,” he said. “But the governor’s budget is a very unusual animal this year. Towns can’t get to the finish line unless they slash and burn their services or increase property taxes.”

New Fairfield, one of the towns McLachlan represents, would need to raise property taxes by about 10 percent to offset the proposed cuts, just to maintain its current level of spending. The governor’s proposal reduces the town’s state aid by about $4.3 million.

The town’s Board of Finance is considering asking for two budgets each from the school board and town, one that assumes no cuts in state aid and one for the “worst-case scenario.” Board members have also suggested delaying a vote on the budget until the state budget is finalized.

McLachlan hopes the bill will prevent midyear changes to town budgets or tax rates. Last year, the governor announced $50 million in cuts to education and construction funding in December, forcing towns to rewrite their budgets.

McLachlan’s bill already has the support of 48 other senators and representatives and could go to public hearing as early as next week. But even if enacted, the bill won’t affect 2017-18 budgets.

“It’s for next year, for future planning purposes,” said state Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26), a supporter of the bill. “Both sides need to come together early enough so towns know what to plan for.”

Other towns hit hard by the governor’s budget include New Milford, Bethel and Brookfield, which would lose $6.6, $3.3 and $2.4 million respectively. New Milford Board of Education members recently wrote to their state representatives urging revisions to education funding, which is steeply reduced or zeroed out in most towns.

Town officials also attacked Malloy’s plan to make towns pay one-third of teacher pension costs.

Ridgefield, where proposed cuts in direct aid and the cost of teacher retirement payments would total $4.4 million, would actually owe the state money under the proposal.

Boucher said that in a recent hearing with the state legislature’s education committee, town officials criticized the proposal for 12 hours.

“One town after another expressed their alarm at this large pension obligation,” Boucher said.

Even cities that would receive a net increase in state aid have some tough decisions to make when drafting their budget, McLachlan said. Danbury would receive $11 million more money from the state, provided that it enacts a new authorized hospital tax.

“They’ve never had to do that before,” McLachlan said. “So now they have to make a decision whether they’ll do it or not.”

McLachlan hopes the bipartisan support shown for the bill so far will make it successful, unlike in years past.

“This kind of request has been talked about by chief elected officials for years, but it was never seriously considered,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve been able to have a major discussion.”