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Municipal Leaders On Panel Disagree On How To Reduce Connecticut's Budget Deficit

DON STACOM

December 04, 2009

HARTFORD - After concurring that the state's priority is to close its projected budget gap of nearly $550 million, a panel of town and city leaders Thursday immediately disagreed about whether the best strategy to accomplish that is through spending cuts, mandate relief or new taxes.

No matter which course Connecticut pursues, the near future will likely be rough going, according to a forecast from Gov. M. Jodi Rell's budget director.

"The state has significant problems ahead of itself to say the least," Robert Genuario told the committee of municipal leaders at the Legislative Office Building. "The time for fantasy resolutions is over."

Rell organized the panel to advise her on how to implement $84 million in cuts to municipal aid, the most politically sensitive component of her emergency proposal to close the budget shortfall.

She also wants the committee to recommend how the state can reduce rules and regulations that burden local communities, and she wants a report by Dec. 15, when she's calling the General Assembly into session to deal with the deficit.

Suburban leaders suggested letting school systems schedule longer but fewer class days to reduce utility costs, and several mayors recommended waiving state mandates that require them to buy newspaper legal ads, store the possessions of evicted tenants and spend a state-imposed minimum on local schools.

Others pressed for a bigger-scale overhaul of how Connecticut does business. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano said he's already cut hundreds of employees and millions of dollars in spending, and needs the state to let his city impose new local taxes, such as a hotel occupancy tax or a small local sales tax.

"The issue of a broader tax base is a big-deal issue to us," said DeStefano, whose city houses a huge share of Connecticut's poor as well as recently released prison inmates, a major strain on its finances.

Genuario warned that projected deficits over the next several years will top $7 billion, with the worst hit coming after the state's reserve funds are spent and the federal stimulus money runs out.

Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton backed that warning, predicting that some communities will face "close to a meltdown" as they try to deliver basic services over the next two years.

"There are going to be burning torches and pitchforks in front of every town hall in the state," he said.

Genuario said the panel will reconvene early next week to discuss specific state mandates.

Some Republicans on the panel complained that leaders of the Democrat-led General Assembly didn't attend, even though they'll get to decide which recommendations, if any, get put into action.

"A lot of people who helped pass these laws aren't in the room," said Vernon Mayor Jason McCoy, a Republican.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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