Time runs out for aid to towns: Officials frustrated by lack of help from legislature

State senators spent hours during the last day of the session Wednesday saying their goodbyes to retiring members, while frustrated town officials watched time run out on their number one priority bill, extension of a tax on real estate sales worth $25 million a year.

“We’re shocked they failed to act after assuring us over and over again they would make this a priority,” said James Finley, spokesman for Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said it was an oversight.

“That’s surprising,” he said. “We like the conveyance tax and the relief it provides to towns. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t something else that fell through the cracks.”

Other town revenue-generators the Senate failed to act on includes increasing the hotel tax from 12 to 15 percent, a move that would have netted towns up to $28.2 million over the next two years.

The Senate’s inaction on numerous bills aimed at helping towns was infuriating to both Connecticut Conference of Small Towns and CCM.

“They have been telling us we are their number one priority and then this is what happens. …It’s hard to stay optimistic,” Finley said.

Williams said the conveyance tax could be brought up again during a special session and the Senate just didn’t have time to debate the controversial hotel tax.

“On the last day any bill with major opposition would have a problem being brought up,” he said.

But Finley and Bart Russell, spokesman for COST, said the House passed the bill almost a week ago and the Senate could have taken the bill up anytime in the past six days.

“They had time to do this,” said Russell. “I’m all for honoring retiring legislators, but it’s incredibly frustrating when the clock is ticking for $25 million for towns while they are doing it.”

The Senate convened in early afternoon and spent the next several hours honoring retiring Sens. Mary Ann Handley, Sam F. Caligiuri, Jonathan Harris and Dan Debicella. The Senate did not take up its first item of business until around 5 p.m.

The House chose to use their last day to continue working on bills, despite the fact that numerous members would not be returning next session, including House Majority Leader Denise W. Merrill and Rep. Cameron C. Staples.

“We have a budget crisis too. I can’t say enough how disappointing this is,” said Russell.

Of the nearly two dozen proposals introduced during the legislature’s three-month session aimed at helping towns by generating new revenue or ending municipal mandates, only a handful were passed by both chambers.

And the budget passed by the General Assembly yesterday flat-lines town aid at $2.8 billion for the upcoming year.

“A lot of towns have put their budgets together dependent on help from the state that had been promised,” Finley said. “Too many bills fell victim to politics. We need more help. I don’t know how clear we need to be.”

Finley said he also was disappointed that the legislature didn’t do more to eliminate unfunded mandates on towns.

“It’s baby steps,” he said. “They didn’t go as far as we would have liked.”

Rep. J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, chairman of the legislative panel tasked with creating cost-savers for towns, agreed that the mandate relief package that the Senate almost overlooked as well, “is not huge, but it’s better than they were getting. More is to come, that’s the message this sends.”

Towns did get relief from laws requiring them to post meeting minutes online and to pay for storage of the belongings of evicted tenants. But bills sparing towns the expense of publishing legal notices in newspapers failed, and the legislature refused to delay implementation of a law that could require many towns to set up in-school programs for suspended students. The suspension programs could cost cities $4.5 million a year, CCM says.

In addition to the hotel tax, other revenue-generators considered but not passed included allowing towns to tax seized marijuana and expanding towns’ ability to levy taxes beyond their one main revenue source, the property tax. Proponents said those proposals could have produced hundreds of millions of dollars a year for towns.

Another proposal that died on both the House and Senate calendar would have allowed towns to reduce the number of polling locations for the upcoming primary elections, a potential cost savings of $50,000 a year for some towns.

House Republicans and Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s proposal to require the House and Senate approve new unfunded mandates on towns by a two-thirds majority also failed.

“Maybe next year,” Finley said. “We’re just warming up.”