Administration tells towns that job-growth projects come first

A quartet of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s top staffers offered municipal leaders simple advice Wednesday for obtaining state aid in this economy: Projects that employ people, or stand to create new jobs are good. Those ready to begin right away are better.

Commissioners Daniel Esty, James P. Redeker and Catherine Smith, along with Office of Policy and Management Secretary Benjamin Barnes, also pledged to transform state government to work more efficiently and in cooperation both with municipalities and businesses to grow the economy.

“We need to get the money out the door,” Barnes told a panel of municipal leaders at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities annual convention at the Connecticut Convention Center.

That means communities seeking state aid now for road repairs, school construction, brownfield remediation or other work that won’t be fully funded and ready to begin for several more years often could well be out of luck.

For example, the administration has received applications from communities seeking between $30 million and $40 million in state assistance through the Small Town Economic Assistance Program. But the governor has just $20 million to award later this fall, Barnes said, adding that awarding even $100,000 to a community that will hold the funds in reserve for two or three years as it accumulates other resources potentially blocks those dollars from creating jobs now.

“We’re trying to push for projects that are ready to go,” he said.

Smith, who heads the Department of Economic and Community Development, said Connecticut also needs to develop a more talented workforce to attract more companies. That means creating “more liveable communities,” is crucial, and cities and towns looking to expand affordable housing also will have a leg up in the battle for state funding.

But Roxbury First Selectwoman Barbara Henry countered that when municipalities are slow to launch capital projects, it’s often due to a slow state permitting process rather than an ongoing hunt for local funds to complement state grants.

“Most of the time it’s hung over over there, in these departments,” she said, pointing to Esty and Redeker, who head the Energy & Environmental Protection and Transportation departments, respectively.

Sprague First Selectwoman Cathy Osten said delays in securing transportation permits for plans to install a 20-foot long box culvert — a device used to channel water under a road or railway — dragged on for more than two years, and added $75,000 in engineering costs to her community.

“I’m still in meetings” with transportation and environmental protection officials to resolve this, Osten added. “How are you going to bring together two organizations that have an inherent distrust in each other?”

But administration officials responded that they are working to streamline permitting processes in a manner that hasn’t been attempted before. While Esty, Redeker and Smith have ongoing efforts in their respective departments, they also are participating in a more holistic joint review.

“The three amigos meet every month,” Redeker said, adding that much of the focus is on identifying review work in different agencies that can be performed simultaneously rather than sequentially, with one department not waiting to start its work until another has completed all of its tasks. “There is a commitment and it is ongoing. It’s a whole different relationship.”

“It won’t be perfect. We won’t get it all right on the first pass,” Esty added. But “we’re going to deliver faster, more predictably and with greater practicality,” Esty added.

Municipal leaders also expressed concern about a recent task force launched by Malloy and the legislature to reform the Education Cost Sharing system, the single-largest state grant program and one that will distribute nearly $1.9 billion to cities and towns this year.

The ECS system, which takes into account a community’s wealth, student population, numbers of families from households on federal assistance, and past education spending, has been a target of criticism for decades by both urban and rural communities, wealthy and poor.

“There isn’t one chief elected (municipal) official on the task force,” Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon said. “My fear is it’s going to be a realignment of the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

But Barnes, who co-chairs the task force, the group — whose members were appointed equally by the governor and by legislative leaders -is committed nonetheless to working closely with towns on the ECS review. He also noted the administration didn’t name representatives of teachers’ unions, charter and magnet schools or other special interests to the panel.