Town leaders treated to budget spat

It was billed as “Municipal Action Day,” a time to “let your voice be heard” at the state Capitol. Instead, stunned town officials heard legislative leaders bickering over the state’s budget crisis, leaving them with little confidence they’d get any relief for their own fiscal problems.

“We talk, talk, talk, but we never act,” said Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney of Fairfield. “We need to have a budget solution. That’s called leadership.”

“We are doing the best we can,” House Majority Leader Denise Merrill of Mansfield retorted, calling Republican legislators part of “the party of no.”

mckinney and merrill 3-23-10

State Sen. John P. McKinney and Rep. Denise Merrill at Tuesday’s meeting with municipal officials

Raising his voice in frustration, McKinney replied that the extent of the current budget’s deficit has been known since last October, and “we’ve done absolutely nothing… The message needs to be enough is enough.”

Merrill said the problem lingers because of the “national economic meltdown” and said her party is looking at reducing the number of tax exemptions in the state, tolls and reducing administrative costs.

McKinney’s response: “Hogwash.”

Many of the officials from 66 towns attending the “Municipal Action Day” event hosted by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities said the interaction did nothing to bolster their confidence that the legislature will help them deal with local budget problems.

“It’s a blame game and nothing is going to get accomplished,” said Matthew Galligan, town manager of South Windsor.

With little hope of assistance from Hartford, Galligan said, he presented his town council Monday with a budget that will increase property tax rates by 8 percent.

Municipalities are slated to receive about $2.8 billion in state grants this fiscal year, down about $50 million from 2008-09 levels. Town leaders said they are bracing themselves for a crash in future assistance as the state faces mounting deficits.

Ralph Eno, first selectman of Lyme, said alarm bells started to go off while witnessing the confrontation between the two leaders.

“This doesn’t produce the outcome that we so need. It’s a sinking ship,” he said.

Town leaders have asked legislators for years to expand their revenue sources so they are not so dependent on state aid. This session there are bills to create new, regional sales and hotel taxes, to continue a temporary increase in the local real estate conveyance tax, and to give communities broad powers to increase local fees.

But Betsy Paterson, the mayor of Mansfield, said after the interaction she just witnessed, she is not convinced party leaders will be able to work together. Her town receives 40 percent of its budget from the state, so Paterson said she is interested in a more dependable new revenue stream.

“Towns get past party politics every day and get things done. The legislature needs to do the same,” she said.