[Bristol Press] City leaders lobby for relief of unfunded mandates

February 10, 2011

Story as appeared in the Bristol Press
by Steve Collins

BRISTOL PRESS — City leaders headed to Hartford Thursday to pleas for relief from unfunded mandates they say makes it tough to balance local budgets.

“This is the time. This is the year to proceed on this,” said state Rep. Whit Betts, a Bristol Republican.

Coming together with leaders from Plymouth, Plainville, New Britain and other Central Connecticut cities and towns, officials said they need relief so they can deal with looming aid cuts without slicing services or hiking taxes.

“This is a critical issue,” said Bristol School Superintendent Philip Streifer.

While costs keep rising because of mandates, he said, the state is covering less and less of the overall education costs.

Among the mandates cited by officials are those requiring particular programs for special education students, in-school suspension programs, prevailing wages laws for municipal projects and requirements that cities store possessions of evicted tenants.

“Lifting or easing the mandates could free up much needed cash for public safety, public works and other essentials,” Mayor Art Ward said.

Without mandate relief, regular education of students will decline, Streifer said.

State lawmakers and Gov. Dannel Malloy have expressed sympathy to calls for mandate relief, but have taken few concrete steps to do it. At stakes are millions of dollars for cities such as Bristol.

State Sen. Jason Welch, a Bristol Republican, urged lawmakers to get relief measures out of committee and on to Malloy’s desk.

Local government officials said this time they may make some strides.

Ward said that for three years, “we’ve been advocating for unfunded mandate relief. I don’t think the time is more opportune than it is right now.”

The mayor said cities are likely to face cuts while still funding mandates. To continue offering services, temporary relief from mandates will let local officials use money.

“Without them it’s evident we’ll need to raise taxes.”

Betts called mandate relief “a very attractive alternative” to raising taxes or cutting programs.

“We are speaking as one voice, as Republicans, as Democrats,” Betts said.

At a press conference in the legislative office building, the officials displayed thick binder full of mandated programs and services. They said most of them are probably good policies but some at least can be shelved until better times.

Others may have outlived their usefulness, Ward said. He asked legislator to form a commission to review all mandates and determine which could be junked entirely.

Welch said that progress is crucial.

Mandates “are breaking municipal budgets,” Welch said.

“Our goal now is to get these thick lists of mandates thinned out,” Welch said. “The thinner and lighter the lists get, the better off all of our towns and taxpayers will be.”