Towns catch a break [Journal Inquirer]

February 19, 2015

By Mike Savino Journal Inquirer | Posted: Thursday, February 19, 2015 11:40 am

Town officials were pleased to see that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed steady funding for the state’s statutory formula grants, the primary form of municipal aid in the state budget.

And legislators, who will now review the proposal and consider changes, said municipal leaders should feel confident that they also support keeping the funding sources level in the next two fiscal years.

But some town officials did express concern about Malloy’s proposal to require municipalities using the resident trooper program to fund 100 percent of the cost.

Somers First Selectwoman Lisa Pellegrini said the change — towns currently pay 70 percent of a trooper’s salary and a larger portion of fringe benefits — could cost her town an additional $171,000 for its three resident troopers.

Malloy’s two-year budget proposal, which he unveiled Wednesday, funds education cost sharing, town road aid, the local capital improvement program, payments in lieu of taxes, and other forms of aid to towns at the same rate as the current year.

The governor said that one of his goals when putting together the proposal was to avoid “a budget that is balanced on the backs of our towns or our public schools.” He also vowed not to sign a budget that included cuts in this area.

“Connecticut must keep its promise to cities and towns,” Malloy said. “This budget continues to fund municipal aid so that we can hold down local property taxes, and so that no teacher, no policeman, and no fireman will be laid off because state government failed to do its part.”

Municipal leaders expressed concern in recent weeks that they would see significant cuts as Malloy looked to close a projected deficit of more than $1 billion in each of the next two fiscal years.

So Wednesday’s news was well received.

“I am extremely thankful that the governor has initiated a budget that maintains the integrity of funding to towns,” East Hartford Mayor Marcia Leclerc said.

The overall funding levels for municipal aid and education grants remains flat, but changes in the formulas that determine payouts mean individual towns could see some changes.

Manchester Town Manager Scott Shanley said he faces a roughly $4,000 loss in state funding, but added that he’s “certainly not complaining” because of his prior concerns.

And legislators said they anticipate no changes in this portion of the governor’s proposal as they work to create their own spending plan.

“Although normally in a deficit situation, I would say don’t count on anything, I’m pretty confident that municipal aid will be spared,” Rep. Claire Janowski, D-Vernon, said.

Coventry Town Manager John Elsesser said efforts to maintain municipal funding are a sign that Malloy and legislators have recognized that property taxes are too high.

Elsesser, who also is president of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said he expects town officials to work with lawmakers on ways for municipalities to save money through regional cooperation.

Shanley agreed.

“It’s not just about getting aid from the state,” he said, adding that officials at all levels need to find a more cost effective way to provide services.

Small-town officials have raised concerns about Malloy’s proposal to pass the entire cost of the resident trooper program to their budgets.
Coventry has its own police department, but Elsesser said the proposal is a concern to the small towns council because roughly 55 towns have at least one resident trooper.

Pellegrini called the service “probably the best regional program there is,” and suggested the proposal could “backfire” as towns either downsize or move away from the program all together.

At least one lawmaker, Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R-Stafford, also expressed concern, because towns could stop hiring their own resident troopers and simply rely on state police at no additional cost.

He also said he has heard town officials object because resident troopers still respond to calls outside the town that hired them, and this proposal ensures that work would come at the expense of towns.

“My small towns can’t afford to be that generous,” he said.