New London outlines priorities for legislators

January 23, 2015

New London Day
New London – Though most of the issues the City Council deals with are focused on the city’s neighborhoods and businesses, its seven members also will be keeping a close eye on the goings-on in Hartford.

On Tuesday, the city’s delegation to the General Assembly in Hartford – Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, Rep. Aundré Bumgardner, R-Groton, and Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme – joined the City Council for a special meeting to discuss issues city leaders and state legislators view as priorities for the new legislative session.

“My focus is going to be on New London because I believe New London is the centerpiece of the district,” Formica told the council. “If New London expands and grows and prospers, it will spread out not only west toward East Lyme and Saybrook, but east to Groton and Westerly.”

Among the most pressing tasks for the legislators will be securing funding this year for New London’s $168 million magnet school construction project, which will complete the facilities portion of the city’s plan to become the state’s first all-magnet school district.

Because the ordinance that authorized the use of municipal bonds to fund the project was petitioned to referendum in November, it was not among the school building projects recommended by the state Department of Administrative Services to the General Assembly for funding.

“It’s looking good,” Hewett said of the likelihood the New London project is included in this year’s funding bill. “I don’t foresee any problems with it because this kind of thing does happen, and we got the language in there to fix it.”

Hewett said he has met with the new commissioner of DAS and has shared language to include New London’s project in the funding bill with the house chair of the Education Committee. Formica added that he has spoken to Republican leaders in the Senate about the project and has been “assured we can move that forward.”

The General Assembly can add a project not recommended by DAS to its annual school construction legislation, but no money can be expended on a project until it is included in such a bill.

All three legislators agreed that reforming the payment in lieu of taxes program would be another key issue this session, though they each favored a different reform proposal.

Bumgardner said he has filed a bill that would require colleges to pay taxes on the assessed value of their land – but not the buildings on that land – to raise the amount of money host municipalities receive without overburdening the colleges.

“I think the most important thing here is that when [tax-exempt institutions] don’t pay, it’s the property tax payers who have to pay,” he said. “The yearly property tax increases that New London faces are just not fair.”

New London, smaller than all but one municipality in Connecticut, is home to a community hospital, three higher education institutions and a “disproportionate number” of social service and nonprofit agencies, the mayor wrote in an op-ed published Sunday in The Day.

“While the benefits of these nonprofits are shared by the entire region, their costs are (borne) largely by New London,” Finizio wrote. “Forty-three percent of the property in New London is tax exempt. Consequently, we’re left with very little property with which to raise revenue to fund our schools, infrastructure and services.”

Under the current PILOT formula, New London receives one-third of the revenue that it would receive if the properties owned by L+M Hospital, Connecticut College and Mitchell College were taxed at the same rate as non-exempt properties.

The proposal Finizio supports, which has been put forth by state Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and state House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, would establish a tiered structure by which the reimbursement rate in cities like New London would increase while the rate for communities with a lower ratio of tax-exempt properties would remain the same.

“If New London’s PILOT reimbursement rate were to increase to 50 percent, we would receive an additional $2 million annually, money that could greatly alleviate the burden borne by New London taxpayers,” Finizio said Tuesday night.

Other issues raised by councilors as priorities included funding for youth support programs, expansions to the Shore Line East rail service, additional cruise ship tourism at State Pier and funding a water taxi to link New London and Groton on the Thames River.