State can’t sell land, but will give some away

Though Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration hasn’t had much success to date selling surplus property to balance the budget, the General Assembly is planning to all-but-give some away later this month to help out their districts back home.

But House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, and Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said the property conveyance bill expected to be taken up in special session later this month would be limited to a few transfers designed to help cities and towns.

“We’re going to keep it lean,” he said, adding it likely would be similar to a measure that died on the Senate calendar when the regular 2010 legislative session ended on May 5.

“My goal is to keep this special session as simple as possible,” Williams said, adding that means debating legislation with strong, bipartisan support and the governor’s backing.

The legislature traditionally adopts an omnibus property conveyance bill each year that transfers or leases dozens of surplus properties to communities, nonprofit agencies and others that are asked only to cover legal expenses.

That changed last July when Rell, locked with lawmakers in a furious budget battle that wouldn’t be resolved until early September, vetoed a bill to convey about 15 properties, noting that both sides had proposed selling state assets to balance the budget.

Rell, whose office declined to comment Thursday, said last summer upon announcing her veto that “”the fiscal landscape has greatly changed. On behalf of Connecticut taxpayers we must maximize the utility of each valuable asset which the state owns.”

Rell and the legislature are counting on at least $60 million in total sales over this fiscal year and next to help balance the books.

The administration reported just over two weeks ago that while the Department of Public Works hopes to close the sale of three properties in the next two months, it had signed off on just $1.5 million in sales to date.

The $60 million biennial target, which includes $15 million for this fiscal year and $45 million for 2010-11, has been attacked by critics as overly optimistic, and as another method of pushing fiscal problems into the next term.

Shortly after the 2009 budget battle was resolved, the Republican governor and Democrat-controlled legislature also agreed on a reduced property conveyance package that largely was limited to transfers needed to assist towns with economic development projects.

Williams said he would like to see a strong emphasis on economic development initiatives in any conveyance package considered in special session, though transfers tied to public safety projects also deserve consideration.

The conveyance bill adopted unanimously in the House during this year’s regular session would have provided land for public parking in Bridgeport, a fire station in Portland, and traffic improvements in Manchester and New Haven. But it also included property for unspecified “municipal purposes” in Wallingford and more than 14 acres for recreation in Burlington.

It would have returned a dam and surrounding land along Lake Phipps in West Haven to a local service district – even though the property was transferred to the state 20 years ago so it would repair and maintain the dam.

And it also would have authorized a study to dedicate 10 acres of the Newington campus of Cedarcrest Hospital, a state psychiatric care facility slated for closure, for town recreational use.

The legislature tentatively is expected to meet in special session on June 21 to consider extending a temporary increase in the municipal real estate conveyance tax. That increase, which municipal leaders have said is worth about $25 million annually to cities and towns, is scheduled to expire on June 30.