This Viewpoint was originally published in CT Mirror on June 6, 2019.
After living for over nine years in the historic and beautiful Black Rock section of Bridgeport, my wife, Mary, and I are leaving the Constitution State. We are saddened to do so because we love our home, our neighborhood, our neighbors, and the state. However, like an increasing number of people, the time has come to cut our losses and move closer to family. In addition, it is not clear that current state and local leaders have the willingness and ability to make the tough choices needed to create a better future in Connecticut, especially in connection with unfunded retirement obligations.
Hopefully the below ideas will help to stimulate action on some much needed reforms over time.
Connecticut, Bridgeport and several other cities in the state face serious financial and competitiveness challenges that are not being effectively addressed. As a result, due to poor leadership and failed policies for many years, Connecticut has gone from a top five to bottom five state in competitive posture and financial condition since the late 1980s. In more recent years, this has resulted in an exodus from the state and a significant decline in home values.
Connecticut still has significant potential, but that potential will never be realized unless the state reduces tax and regulatory burdens, improves its transportation systems and critical infrastructure, rationalizes its welfare systems, addresses the serious educational opportunity gaps that exist, rightsizes state government, modernizes government human capital practices, and revitalizes its troubled cities.
In order to do so, Connecticut, and many of its major cities, MUST restructure current pension and retiree health care plans in a reasonable, affordable and sustainable manner. This represents the fiscal cancer that must be addressed in a timely manner at both the state and local level in order to create a better future. Deferring contributions and engaging in pension obligation bonding at this time are just two examples of kicking the can down the road on needed reforms.
Bridgeport also has potential but it needs to reject political machine-controlled and patronage-oriented government, significantly reduce its property tax rate, and capitalize on its comparative advantages. In order to do so, it should bring a first class resort/casino to the city, more aggressively pursue enterprise/ opportunity zones, revitalize its waterfront, capitalize on its deep water port potential, and consider filing for bankruptcy in order to restructure its finances.
Several other cities in the state also need to consider the bankruptcy option. After all, any municipality with a mill rate over 40 is not competitive and huge unfunded retirement obligations will only make things worse over time absent real restructuring.
As an example of the competitiveness challenge facing Connecticut and its cities, during the past eight months, Mary and I have already seen that the property tax rate on our new home in Alexandria, Va is one third of Bridgeport, electric rates are half, laundry and dry cleaning is less than half, auto and homeowners insurance are one third less, there are no mandatory automobile tolls, and gasoline is 10-20 percent less. In addition, the quality of life and public services in Fairfax County are as good or better than anywhere in Fairfield County and the quality of life in Alexandria is excellent.
And where did Amazon decide to put their second headquarters? Three and one-half miles from our Alexandria home! As a result, unlike Connecticut, homes prices are rising.
From an integrity perspective, Connecticut needs to join the 46 other states that ban convicted felons for public corruption from holding public office, adopt much tougher conflict of interest rules at the state and local level, and recognize the fact that public sector unions have too much political power and have run the state into a fiscal chasm. It’s time to get rid of the nick-name – Corrupticut!
Finally, since we will be exiting the state this month, I have resigned my position on Connecticut’s Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB) that currently oversees three troubled municipalities (i.e., Hartford, West Haven and Sprague).
Reforms are needed to make the MARB more effective. For example, any municipality with a mill rate over 40 with large unfunded retirement obligations should automatically be subject to MARB oversight should the MARB deem it appropriate.
Based on this criteria, Waterbury, Bridgeport and New Haven and selected other smaller municipalities should be subject to MARB oversight. The MARB also needs to focus its efforts on municipalities with serious competitive and structural financial challenges rather than short-term challenges.
MARB should only provide temporary state aid to municipalities that achieve actual reductions in recurring spending and actual increases in their taxable grand list. It also needs to recognize that requiring tax increases in cities with very high and non-competitive tax rates will only make things worse over time. Its focus needs to be on real reductions in spending and stimulating economic growth so tax burdens can be lowered over time.
Ultimately, the state should cap property tax rates and provide meaningful property tax relief to seniors. This will take time but needs to be accomplished in order to revitalize troubled cities and retain seniors after they retire. After all, the number one tax concern for Connecticut residents is property taxes rather than income taxes. Such is clearly the case in troubled cities.
Mary and I truly hope that these and other state and local challenges will eventually be addressed for the sake of our friends, neighbors and the citizens of Connecticut, Bridgeport and other troubled cities. They deserve no less.
Finally, after deciding to leave Connecticut, I accepted a Distinguished Visiting Professor position at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD starting in August. I am looking forward to this unique opportunity to serve my country again and to help prepare our nation’s future leaders. As a result, it’s time for us to say, goodbye and good luck Connecticut, and Go NAVY!
David M. Walker is the former U.S. Comptroller General.
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