Local leaders see time running out for municipal budget relief

Town leaders are beginning to worry their budget needs have been placed on hold as focus at the Capitol seems to be on fixing the state’s budget first.

“We are disappointed. We have made it very clear our towns need help,” said Jim Finley, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

With just one week left in the legislative session, none of the 21 bills that would provide cash-strapped towns with some fiscal relief have been acted on by either the House or the Senate.

House Majority Leader Denise W. Merrill, D-Mansfield, said several of the proposals could be part of a larger budget agreement, but could make no guarantees which proposals would be included.

“I don’t think we will act on those unless there’s a larger agreement,” she said.

Revenue-generating bills include increasing the hotel tax, continuing the expiring tax on real estate sales, allowing towns to  tax seized marijuana and increasing fees for town services for such things as marriage licenses and notarization. Collectively, the legislature’s budget office estimates these proposals will bring in at least $34 million for towns.

And while the legislature has not acted on revenue generators, it has rejected cost-saving measures.

The Planning and Development Committee yesterday rejected a bill that lifts the requirement that towns pay to publish legal notices in newspapers. Mayor Melody Curry says East Hartford spend $100,000 a year, and CCM estimates towns spend $2 million statewide on legal advertisements.

The Education Committee last week rejected CCM’s request for a delay and voted to move forward with legislation limiting local school districts’ ability to suspend students out of school. That will require communities to create in-school suspension programs, CCM says; it estimates in-school suspension will cost small towns $10,000 and cities up to $4.5 million annually.

“To me this just underscores the lack of reality of our state legislators,” said Finley.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero said in-school suspensions will cost his hometown school district in Norwalk $300,000 a year. He called the majority Democrats “dysfunctional” for failing to act on mandate relief proposals.

Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s proposal to require the House and Senate approve new unfunded mandates on towns by a two-thirds majority also never made it out of committee.

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, said towns should not be discouraged, because there are still several bills to help towns on the table.

“There is still time. At this point in the session, several bills are still alive and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Several proposals that have survived the legislative committee’s vetting process would cost the state nothing, reports the legislature’s budget office.

These proposals include no longer requiring towns to post meeting minutes online, requiring landlords rather than the town to pay for storing evicted tenants’ belongings, and allowing town boards of education to pool their health insurance benefits. Another would allow towns to reduce the number of polling locations for the upcoming elections.

Individually these are not huge cost-cutting measures, but Finely said collectively they have the potential to save towns millions.

“We are not getting the relief we need,” he said. “Give us something, anything.”