Local elected officials said Tuesday that state lawmakers can’t claim they will pass a budget later this week without a tax increase because the reduction in municipal aid coupled with the lack of structural changes will cause property taxes to increase.
Local officials, who belong to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, held a press conference in Cromwell Tuesday to let lawmakers know there’s still time to enact meaningful mandate relief.
The $19.75 billion state budget for fiscal year 2017 reduces local education funding by about $68 million and municipal property tax relief by about $27 million.
“Without those cuts being accompanied by structural changes, mandate relief or other efficiencies is simply a massive tax increase,” Joe DeLong, executive director of CCM, said. “It’s just a tax increase being put into the property tax.”
Without the structural changes, the legislature has essentially “punted the football and then gone home and told their constituents that they scored a touchdown,” DeLong said.
For the past five years, municipalities have largely been held harmless by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration when it comes to state funding. However, facing a $960 million budget deficit, lawmakers and the governor say they have been forced to reconsider their priorities.
Still, local elected officials warned that tax increases will be necessary to balance their budgets without the structural changes and mandate relief they’ve been requesting for years.
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who is currently president of CCM, said they’ve asked for more control over what boards of education spend on “non-education” items in their budgets.
Other structural changes the mayors and first selectmen called for Tuesday included changes to the minimum budget requirement, which requires towns to spend the same amount money on education as they did the previous year, even if the student population decreases.
Portland First Selectwoman Susan Bransfield said the imposition of the minimum budget requirement over the past few years has meant that no matter what efficiencies might have been found within the education budget “the budgets can not be reduced beyond a small amount.” Bransfield acknowledged that small changes have been made to the formula, but they’re not enough to be meaningful.
“Connecticut’s property taxpayers need bolder moves,” Bransfield said. “With declines in student populations in many of our towns and cutbacks in grants to cities and towns, we need more flexibility in the local education budgeting process.”
Seymour First Selectman Kurt Miller said they would also like to have more control over the Municipal Employees Retirement System, which is fully funded and paid for by municipal contributions.
There are 8,500 current employees, 6,500 retired employees, and 1,000 who have retired but have yet to start receiving benefits in the system. Since 2002, the cost to run the program has quadrupled and put a tremendous strain on cities and towns. There is no assistance from the state for the program, yet municipalities are unable to negotiate the retirement benefits and contributions the employees make to the fund themselves.
“We’re just asking for the same flexibility the state has given itself,” Miller said.
Boughton said he understands they’re going to have to take a little bit of a “haircut,” but at the same time “you can’t ask us to do more. You can’t give us more programs. You can’t put more mandates on us.”
Boughton said there are people at the capitol who wink at him and laugh and say the towns are never going to get the money the legislature promised.
“We’ve got big problems in this state. Big problems require big solutions,” Boughton said. “Not rush in the middle of the night, slap it together, throw it in the implementer solutions. We should sit down and get this right together . . . We want to be part of the solution. We want to be at the table for these discussions.”
About 20 minutes before the press conference, the budget bill was released detailing the reductions in municipal aid, but the additional language to implement the budget was still not available.