Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie file photo
Joe DeLong, executive director of CCM (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD, CT — Connecticut’s largest municipal lobby is hosting the last gubernatorial debate in October, but they don’t want to be left out of the conversation in the lead-up to the November election.

In an effort to keep their issues on the frontburner, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities is releasing a series of reports on issues they care about. At the top of the list are “unfunded state mandates.”

“There are currently over 1,300 state mandates that directly impact towns and cities, resulting in increased local costs and higher property taxes throughout Connecticut,” Joe DeLong, CCM’s executive director, said. “Most of these state mandates are underfunded or completely unfunded.”

The unfunded state mandates force local governments to increase property taxes to cover the costs, reduce or eliminate local services, or cancel or limit needed infrastructure improvements.

But what exactly is an unfunded state mandate?

According to CCM the top unfunded state mandates include binding arbitration laws, a health insurance premium tax on municipalities, the inability of boards and commissions to publish legal notices online, and the inclusion of municipal fund balances when determining a municipality’s ability to pay in a labor dispute.

The report released Monday by CCM says there were 152 new mandates proposed in 2017 and 2018 and only 57 mandate relief proposals during that same period.

“Local officials are on the front lines of service delivery and accept the objectives of many well-intended mandates,” DeLong said. “The solutions proposed by CCM are attainable.”

Last year, CCM failed to get legislation passed that would have limited the power an arbiter has to take into consideration a municipality’s Rainy Day fund when deciding a labor dispute.

In the report released Monday, CCM is asking for a requirement that would shorten binding arbitration negotiations to be completed within one year from the date they imposed. CCM also wants to increase the power of local governing bodies to reject arbitration awards by a two-thirds vote and allow local governing or legislative bodies to reject stipulated agreements between Boards of Education and teachers.

While they may have lost that argument, they were successful at beating back a proposal from Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration that would have required them to contribute up to one-third of the cost of the Teacher’s Retirement System.

Municipalities argued that local governments should not bear the burden of these teacher retirement benefits as they are not negotiated or controlled by local government officials.

For decades, the state has failed to properly fund the teachers retirement system. Some studies say the cost of the state’s contribution to the fund will balloon to $6.2 billion by 2032. The Malloy administration asked municipalities to divide a $400 million contribution to the fund whose annual cost is rising to about $2 billion a year.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers defeated the proposal amid lobbying by CCM and other organizations.

But the municipal lobby doesn’t always win. Towns continue to be required to pay newspapers to publish legal notices. CCM has consistently been defeated by the Connecticut Newspaper Association in their attempts to wrest control of those legal notices away from the daily print newspaper chains.

Municipalities’ estimated annual cost of publishing legal notices in newspapers is around $4.5 million, according to a CCM survey.

“Municipalities are not seeking a complete repeal of the law, but rather a reasonable modification. Such a proposal would allow for publishing notice of the availability of a full document in local newspapers, along with a summary and clear instruction as to how to obtain additional information or the complete text of the public document,” the CCM report states.

CCM also doesn’t believe municipalities should be forced to keep evicted tenants’ possessions.

“While municipalities are allowed to try and recoup some of the costs by auctioning off the items, municipalities must incur costs associated with conducting an auction (including publicizing the auction, etc.),” CCM says in its report. “In addition, typically the possessions are not sellable — ultimately, the municipality receives little or no reimbursement.”

CCM also warned in its report against offering mental health benefits to first responders through the workers’ compensation system. They have been largely successful in defeating attempts to change the current system, which doesn’t cover mental health, since 2013.

“If it takes difficult economic times to make bold changes, then so be it,” the report states.