In what was sometimes a heated discussion, municipal and state officials tried to tackle the issue of unfunded state mandates during a two-hour meeting Thursday.
But after municipal leaders spoke about all the cuts they already had made and brainstormed ways the state could offer them some relief, an argument over which policies would actually pass the legislature broke out between New Haven Mayor John DeStefano and Vernon Mayor Jason McCoy.
“We don’t have an idea problem,” DeStefano said. “We have a political problem.”
DeStefano suggested the group not waste its time on things like amending the state’s binding arbitration laws, because something like that won’t pass the Democrat-controlled General Assembly. Instead, DeStefano said the state should be helping municipalities by allowing them to raise their own revenue through local option taxes.
McCoy then suggested that the Senate Democrats who appointed DeStefano asked him to take binding arbitration off the table.
DeStefano said that was not the case.
“We are all partners,” Rell’s Budget Secretary Robert Genuario said. “The state has to be part of the solution and municipalities have to be part of the solution.”
DeStefano also took exception to Genuario’s comment that state and local officials are all partners.
“We’re not partners,” DeStefano said. “We follow the state’s rules.”
East Hartford Mayor Melody Currey said she thinks the elephant in the room is not who appointed whom, but the minimum budget requirement municipalities are required to follow under the state’s Education Cost Sharing grant.
Instead of requiring towns to spend 100 percent of increased ECS grants on education, the law allows towns to spend part of the aid increase on other things depending on the performance of its schools.
Currey also suggested the state could help towns by making the real estate conveyance tax permanent.
Even though the 12-member panel appointed by legislative leaders and the governor was asked to make recommendations on where the state should cut $84 million in municipal aid, Currey didn’t believe they should be advocating for any more cuts in municipal aid.
“We’re barely able to preserve the services our constituents enjoy,” Currey said.
Genuario said the issues the panel discussed Thursday have been discussed “for years and years and years.” And the more controversial ones are where all the money is, he said.
One of those issues is the amount of money the state pays its three biggest cities in in lieu of local taxes on state property – also known as PILOT money.
Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch said it’s difficult for him to deliver services in a city that’s 17-square miles, where the median income is $36,000 a year, and the state isn’t paying the full amount of taxes on the property it owns.
“It’s difficult to find ways we can cut more,” Finch said.
The 12-member panel will meet again next week at some point to discuss the issue of cuts in municipal funding.