Hugh McQuaid Photo
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey proposed letting towns set a separate tax rate for education expenses as part of a legislative package designed to reduce municipal reliance on property tax revenue.

Sharkey and other legislators outlined proposals from the Municipal Opportunities & Regional Efficiencies Commission during a Thursday press conference at the state Capitol. They included several changes to how towns fund and approve education spending, which Sharkey said often accounts for between 60 and 80 percent of a town’s total budget.

One of the proposals would allow towns to bifurcate their tax bills — one bill would cover the taxes to run the school system and the other would pay for municipal spending.

“The idea would be the boards of ed would be able to set their own mill rate to reflect the cost of what it takes to run the schools system in those communities,” Sharkey said. The goal is to add transparency to a town’s education expenses, which often are a single line item in a municipal budget, he said.

Sharkey said the proposal would also enable boards of education to make the case for education funding directly to taxpayers, rather than selling a budget to a town or city council.

“It’s permissive. This is not something that we’re mandating on towns but if communities think this is an effective way to ensure efficiencies at the local level, this is a tool they would be able to use to do so,” Sharkey said.

Following the press conference, Somers First Selectman Lisa Pellegrini, a member of the M.O.R.E. Commission, said the concept could be a valuable transparency tool, but will not be used in every town.

“This could be very useful in towns that have a feuding relationship between the town side and the school side,” she said. “In Somers, we get along very well… But I’ve been to meetings in other towns where they’re knock-down, dragged-out fights.”

The legislative package also calls for regionalizing special education programs in an effort to help towns share the cost of the expensive and sometimes unpredictable programs.

“Instead of having every town duplicating a program for one or two kids at a time, we try to get the towns to work together to come up with a program that all those towns can feed into,” Sharkey said.

The House speaker, who represents Hamden where Quinnipiac University is based, will also continue to seek changes that would help municipalities with nonprofit hospitals and universities retain taxable property on their grand lists even as those institutions expand.

The proposal would require nonprofit institutions to pay taxes on any new properties they purchase and would call for creating a tiered reimbursement structure for the state’s Payment In Lieu of Taxes program.

Other proposals in the package include consolidating the state’s complex network of emergency call answering centers and easing a requirement that towns publish certain notices in local newspapers. Instead, municipalities would be permitted to publish shortened notices in the paper with directions to read the full notice on the town’s website.

Sharkey said Connecticut must find efficient ways to function in a “new normal” of leaner budgets.

“The state cannot afford to subsidize, through local aid and education aid, inefficiencies. It can no longer be the function of state government to contribute to and tolerate any inefficiencies that go on at the local level and the state level,” he said.