Municipal officials have traditionally relied on the governor’s budget proposal as a guide as they work on their own spending plans.
Town’s typically approved their budgets before the legislature passes a final state budget. In the past, local officials say the governor’s proposal has provided enough certainty on municipal aid to move forward.
They don’t have the same confidence in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget proposal this year, citing concerns about dramatic shifts both in funding levels and the policies behind them.
“These are very troubling times, and I have never seen uncertainty like this during my time,” said John Leary, Republican chairman of Southington’s Finance Board.
Leary’s not alone — Wallingford Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr., also a Republican, said it’s “much more difficult this year” to craft a budget proposal.
Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for Malloy, said the governor is ready to help municipalities.
“We have heard the concerns of town officials regarding timeline constraints regarding their local budgets,” Donnelly said. “Their concerns are understandable and we are committed to working with them to help them address this particular challenge.”
Anticipating protests from municipal leaders, Malloy included some proposed mandate relief in his budget and urged the legislature to give local officials more control over their own ability to raise revenue.
Malloy has proposed shifting more municipal aid to needy cities without increasing the overall pool of funds, citing the looming $1.7 billion deficit. That means the majority of towns and suburbs stand to lose funding, in many cases millions of dollars — Meriden is the only municipality in the area that would see an increase under the proposal.
The shift is compounded by changes in policy, municipal leaders say, making it hard to predict future levels of funding. Prior to this proposal, Malloy has dealt with past state budget deficits without cutting aid or shifting expenses to municipalities.
In some cases, specific protections like a “hold-harmless” provision within the Education Cost Sharing grant formula has prevented cuts to some sources of aid to municipalities. Malloy’s budget proposal would undo that.
“The only certainty at this point is town expenses,” Leary said.
Lawmakers say they understand municipal leaders’ frustrations. Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said “taxes and uncertainty” are the biggest complaints he hears about the state. Fishbein also serves on the Wallingford Town Council.
“I feel for all the town officials that are having to deal with the uncertainty created by this governor’s latest budget recommendation, which with one fell swoop slaps the towns in the face while coddling the cities,” said Fishbein. “With the course he has charted, no municipality in this state can possibly plan for their next budget.”
Fishbein has co-sponsored bills that would require the state to give firm ECS figures, the largest source of local aid, to municipalities by March 1 annually, and another to prohibit mid-year cuts to municipal aid after Nov. 1.
Other lawmakers are advising municipalities to proceed based on Malloy’s proposal, but assured them the figures will get better.
Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden, a vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, said she and many other lawmakers are opposed to Malloy’s proposed municipal aid cuts, a requirement for towns to pay part of teachers’ retirement benefits, and allowing towns to levy property taxes on hospitals.
“Those are the things right off the top of my head that I know I can’t live with,” she said.
Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, also on the Appropriations Committee, said he’s “reasonably confident” that municipal aid is “not going to be as bad as it looks right now,” but agreed with Southington’s decision to proceed with conservative figures.
Dickinson expressed doubt about having funding restored, noting lawmakers will need to cut funding elsewhere or raise taxes to do so.
Lawmakers also said they’re looking to get the budget done as quickly as possible in part to help municipalities.
“This year’s going to be different,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said. “We understand the pressure, the legislature’s going to try act quickly to get the budget done sooner rather than later.”
Aresimowicz said he has already begun discussions with Republican leaders. Abercrombie likewise said the Appropriations Committee, which has until April 27 to approve a budget, has moved up its normal timeline to try to get done faster.
Abercrombie admitted the budget process could be more difficult, though, as Democrats hold only a seven-seat majority in the House and split power with Republicans in a tied Senate.
Markley expressed concern that the legislature won’t adopt a budget before the June 7 end of session, or even the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
“It’s going to be so difficult to find any kind of consensus on the budget this year that I’m not optimistic about it being done before the end of session,” he said.
The potential for a prolonged budget fight at the state level has local officials worried about their own budget processes. Leary said he’s seen a lot more interest in the budget process this year, driven by a fear of tax increases.
“People who never cared about the budget are asking questions,” he said.
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