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Cash-Strapped Municipalities Asking State For Relief From Mandates

DON STACOM

September 15, 2009

HARTFORD - Across the state, financially bruised cities and towns are preparing to pay out money that they say they can't afford and don't want to spend.

And that outflow of cash will only grow worse next year, unless the General Assembly steps in this month, according to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

Communities are renewing their fight to roll back new state-mandated expenses and plan to ramp up pressure on state lawmakers during a key two-day period this month.They acknowledge that arguments against costly mandates are the same ones they've been pushing without success all year, but they insist that the stakes are higher now.

"As bad as this year's budget season was, next year is going to be much worse," Simsbury First Selectman Mary Glassman said Friday. "And still we're going in the wrong direction. Everybody [at the Capitol] is saying they support mandate relief, but nobody is coming up with a plan to provide it."

Communities throughout Connecticut could save millions if lawmakers would postpone new mandates, such as requiring schools to provide staff and space for in-school suspension centers. Another mandate raises the age for prosecuting teenagers as adults from 16 to 18; police say that would require costly new jail facilities to separate different types of defendants.

"A lot of these things started with good public policy intent, but in this day and age we're having to make choices paying for mandates means we're taking away from other services," said Windsor Town Manager Peter Souza.

Lawmakers often pass mandates because social service organizations, education advocates or state agencies make a case that they'll benefit society. But CCM, a lobbying organization for towns and cities, says that Windsor and other communities should at least get a two- or three-year break from expensive state requirements.

"These are things the state can do that won't cost any new money," CCM President Jim Finley Jr. said.

Mandate Relief Possible

Rep. John Geragosian, chairman of the House appropriations committee, said Saturday that municipalities stand a better chance of getting mandate relief than winning any new increase in state grants.

"Ultimately, I think there'll be some relief in this [budget] package," said Geragosian, who added that it's too soon to know exactly which requirements the General Assembly will agree to lift as it finalizes the state's new budget this month. "I know CCM is also looking to restore some [municipal aid] money that was cut earlier on we'd like to do that, but it's not going to happen this year."

Even if the national recession begins to ease, local governments expect to stay under severe budget pressure for the next two to three years at least. Many of them furloughed staff, froze wages, postponed building repairs and spent their "rainy day" funds to balance this year's budget, and they know that those short-term solutions can't be extended indefinitely.

Glassman's affluent community of about 24,000 illustrates the trouble. Simsbury's government cut its spending by 3 percent despite inflation and got wage freezes and even small pay cuts from employees, but still had to raise taxes because income plummeted. Investment income alone plunged 76 percent. And soon, the town will need to come up with cash to replenish its pension accounts; losses from last year's stock market crisis only begin showing up in the accounts now, Glassman said.

CCM every year pushes for bigger municipal grants from the state, but Finley said that mandate relief is a way for lawmakers and Gov. M. Jodi Rell to help without shouldering new expense. CCM will ask towns to get residents and merchants to phone the General Assembly on Sept. 23 and 24, when lawmakers are scheduled to finish technical work on implementing Connecticut's new two-year budget. The group will also sponsor radio ads during that time.

Savings

How much might towns save? Estimates vary widely, but CCM offered a few specific projections. Postponing the "raise the age" juvenile justice law would mean annual savings of $720,000 for Bristol and $230,000 for West Hartford, it said; delaying the in-school suspension bill would save $625,000 for Bridgeport and $146,000 for Manchester.

"Even the small mandates mean a lot now," Souza said, citing an existing law that requires towns to store the possessions of evicted tenants. Windsor assigns public works staff to do that, but with municipal government shrinking the town lost five full-time positions this year the work is eating into time that's needed for more important tasks, he said.

"There's a cost in money and in staff time," Souza said. "Staff is hashing things out between marshals and tenants and the storage facility we use that's time that could be used scheduling work on potholes or drainage issues, or helping to do analytical work on our costs."

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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