Whoever thought stormwater would ever be such a contentious issue? But new state regulations on just that have been at the center of the latest round of contention between the state and our municipalities, all because of unfunded mandates.
When I did my research about new bills for this semester, I found plenty of proposals aimed at doing away with new regulations designed to reduce pollution caused by stormwater runoff. Sounds good, right? However, towns, and cities got a look at the new regulations and saw yet another unfunded mandate — which is essentially a regulation the state hands down to towns without giving the towns any funding to actually implement it.
Towns hate unfunded mandates with good reason. Unlike the federal government, which can deficit spend, or the state government, which can cut municipal aid to balance the budget, towns and cities can’t pass the buck. They have to find the money, raise taxes, or cut the budget — and that’s always a painful prospect. It’s worse in towns where budgets are decided by town meeting or referendum.
The water regulations were intended by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to help curb the spread of pollutants into lakes and rivers from stormwater, and mandated things like more frequent street sweeping and management of fallen leaves. Towns immediately cried foul, pointing out that the state was going above and beyond federal EPA regulations, and that there would be a significant cost involved. DEEP backed off, though some towns are still bill in the legislature this year that would force the state to pay for special education, and why towns often drag their feet in offering services.
The problem is that both the new DEEP regulations and better special education requirements are actually good ideas that we should, in some form, be doing. Some of what DEEP is requiring may not make a ton of sense, but a lot of it — like more frequent street cleaning — does. And study after study has shown that individual attention and dedicated, specially trained aides are absolutely essential to the success of students in special education programs. So, as usual, we’re caught between doing the right thing and not angering a touchy, penny-pinching electorate.
There are a couple of solutions we could try. First, we could allow towns and cities to raise money in ways that aren’t property taxes. Local sales taxes and hotel occupancy taxes are just two of the many ways that towns and cities could raise additional money. Towns in neighboring states, like Massachusetts, do this quite a bit.
This could help reduce the property tax burden, which is one of the signal complaints of the grumpy, tight-fisted codgers whose voices are disproportionally heard in budget discussions. Cities have been asking for this since forever, and it’s a mystery why the state hasn’t bothered to allow them to do it yet.
Another solution would be to change the way we pay for different services. Education is by far the widest slice of the budget pie in every town and city — often accounting for half or more of total expenditures. Education also is the area where the most burdensome regulations for towns are handed down.
Maybe it’s time to admit that local funding of education doesn’t work. Why do we keep education funding at the local level, anyway? It’s probably because we want to keep believing that local school boards have total control over the schools in our neighborhoods — which they haven’t for some time.
Maybe it’s time, then, to force the government that meddles most in education to actually pay for it, as well. Our state income taxes would go up, sure, but property taxes would go way down as town budgets shrink. Plus, a statewide school system would be great for school choice, which is something a lot of parents claim they want, and it could cut down on the racial and economic divide between our towns as town borders become irrelevant to where a child goes to school.
Or, you know, we could just not pass bills that require someone else to pay for the things we want. But that’s probably too much to ask.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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