State, town finances center discussion at United Way panel

There’s still a little more than a week left in 2012, but Greenwich’s legislative delegation to Hartford already has its eye on 2013 and the challenges that lie ahead.

At the United Way of Greenwich’s annual legislative breakfast on Dec. 13, state Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th District), state Reps. Livvy Floren (R-149th District) and Fred Camillo (R-151st District), along with state Rep.-elect Steve Walko (R-150th District) spoke to a packed audience of town officials, heads of service agencies, both private and municipal, and town residents, including members of the Representative Town Meeting and Board of Education, about what they see ahead for the new legislative session. First Selectman Peter Tesei was also on hand to discuss the town’s priorities and talk about what could well be a bruising battle ahead over the municipal budget.

But it was the state’s finances that dominated most of last Thursday’s discussions. Mr. Frantz, who was recently elected to his third term, took the lead on talking about efforts to try to close a projected $415-million budget deficit in Connecticut. Mr. Frantz did not mince words, saying the upcoming debates and potential solutions “are not going to be pretty.”

“Unfortunately I’m the one who is going to come across like the Grinch this morning because I’m the one who has to talk about the budget,” Mr. Frantz said. “That’s not the most pleasant of things to talk about, given what’s going on in the state of Connecticut. The news is not good, and over the last few days we’ve learned more and more about what we’re facing. We have a close to half-a-billion-dollar budget deficit forecast halfway through our fiscal year. That’s against the backdrop of a $20 billion plus or minus budget. It’s not good news. We were supposed to have a $300- to $500-million surplus for this fiscal year, and instead we have a deficit somewhere between $400 and $500 million halfway through the year. And they’re expecting over the next fiscal year over a billion-dollar deficit and for fiscal year 2015 the same, over a billion-dollar deficit. And this is after historic tax increases in the state with somewhere between $3.5 and $4 billion of increased taxes over a two-year period.”

Mr. Frantz said this didn’t come as a surprise to legislators, given the state’s history of growing its budget over the past 30 years beyond the population growth rate and personal income growth.

“Simple math should tell you that this is unsustainable,” Mr. Frantz said. “These numbers compound over the course of time.”

Mr. Frantz added quickly that he was optimistic there could be a way out of this in a truly bipartisan fashion that did not involve raising taxes. While Greenwich’s delegation is entirely Republican, Democrats enjoy big majorities in both houses of the legislature, and Gov. Dannel Malloy is a Democrat as well, putting Greenwich in a bit of a tough spot. But Mr. Frantz said he believed both sides would come together for the good of the state as a whole.

“It’s amazing when you get into a situation like this, and there have to be cuts in the works, how it can become a bipartisan thing very quickly,” Mr. Frantz said. “We’re all elected to go solve problems, and this is what we’re going to do with the majority party. We’re going to try and help them fix the problems that were created as a result of this budget.”

Mr. Frantz claimed the “anemic” national economic recovery was not helping Connecticut very much but said there were also policies within the state that had to be ended in order to stimulate growth and improve the business climate through lower taxes and more efficient regulations that are “more friendly” to business. He said Mr. Malloy was working with leaders from both caucuses to discuss what was going to be proposed as a solution. More information on proposals for the budget deficit was expected to be released yesterday, after the deadline for this week’s edition of the Post.

Saying he was “pretty confident there would be a decent solution,” Mr. Frantz predicted it would be a compromise of “very serious cuts” and minimal revenue enhancements. He said this would not include new taxes, based on what Mr. Malloy had said, but would involve closing tax loopholes. Mr. Frantz said he was “very concerned” about the cuts in spending and he believed there would be a reduction in money spent on the state’s Department of Social Services, something that got a lot of disapproval from the United Way crowd.

“The shame is that all of this could have been avoided,” Mr. Frantz said. “If we had a more cost-effective and efficient state government, we would not be faced with these terrible deficits. These cuts are going to hurt. My argument is that you make the cuts, which are going two and a half to three percent for this particular fiscal year, but don’t do it where they’re really going to hurt people who are the beneficiaries of these programs. Do it where the bureaucracy is wasting money and wasting time. That’s where we should be focused, and that’s what I will be arguing on the floor.”

Fiscal matters were also very much on the mind of Mr. Tesei, who talked about the need to retain services town residents rely on with economic realities of balancing a budget and keeping taxes low. Calling the town “a service organization” focused on life safety, education, and health and welfare, Mr. Tesei said his goal as chief elected official is to make sure those areas are met while dealing with rising municipal health care and pension costs.

“I will be working closely with my colleagues on the Board of Selectmen and also with the BET to see to it that we have the level services in the areas that people have come to expect,” Mr. Tesei said. “That is a calling card for the town of Greenwich to get people to come here. They look at communities across the spectrum and make a decision based upon the resources they have and the attractiveness of them. Greenwich has never had really an issue with that. We are geographically desirable. We have access to New York. We’re on Long Island Sound. We have a broad amenity of services, but it’s a challenge for us to keep those in this environment. So we’re working very hard with the BET and RTM leaders to arrive at a fair and equitable distribution.”

Mr. Tesei noted that when it came to the town mill rate, which is expected to be a huge issue as the budget is developed, the difference between a 2.5% increase and a 3% one comes down to $52 on a million-dollar-assessed home. He said it was important to discuss the mill rate but warned against getting “too caught up in that discussion” because in terms of a property assessed at that high value it came down to one dollar a week.

All the speakers were assigned specific areas of concern from the United Way. With the town’s memories of the damage and long-term power outages of Hurricane Sandy still fresh in mind, Mr. Camillo discussed steps the state could take to deal with the growing number and length of outages and emergencies. He said that with aboveground lines, there was “no way” a storm like Sandy wasn’t going to cause significant damage and outages, and he praised the work of the crews who worked to restore the power but criticized Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) management for what he saw as a lack of good communication with customers.

“I was in contact with them daily and went to the town’s command center a few times,” Mr. Camillo said. “What we were told wasn’t necessarily what the people on the ground were told. So when people called me and asked when is Lancer Road going to be back and I tell them maybe by 3 p.m. because that’s what management told me, people would get furious because it wasn’t happening. There was a lot of miscommunication.”

Mr. Camillo said he was “pretty confident” this was an issue they would have to deal with again and said a lot of people had asked him about burying power lines in town. Calling himself “one of the few proponents of really looking at that,” Mr. Camillo said that while CL&P says they’re against it they have admitted that when roads are being torn up for construction or improvement, that’s the time to do it.

“It’s almost 2013, other states do it, and in fact other parts of our state do it,” Mr. Camillo said. “Other countries do it. In Italy in one of the towns up in the mountains they bury the lines in the rocks. They get it done and we can’t just keep saying it’s too expensive. Let’s look at ways to make it more efficient and cost-effective.”

Ms. Floren was tasked with discussing the need for affordable housing, something she called a “basic need right up there with food, water and clothing.” Ms. Floren may have been alluding to an ongoing issue in Darien when she noted that creating workforce housing “should not be accomplished with threats by developers” to use state mandates to break local zoning regulations. Instead, she said, “the needs of our state and our community can and should be met by all stakeholders working in concert.”

She said the state should allow communities to define what is considered “affordable” based on the economics of their population demographics and real estate values. Ms. Floren also suggested expanding property tax relief and deferral programs for the elderly, converting and rehabilitating historical, commercial and industrial buildings for residential use, building prefabricated modular homes on municipal property, allowing existing apartments to be leased at below-market prices in exchange for tax credits, and working with homeowners to rent available space in their homes at a “moderate rate” while getting property tax relief from town and working with local housing authorities to build new and small mixed-income units in neighborhoods close to stores, recreation and public transportation.

“I also think cities and towns should coordinate efforts to solve the housing shortfall on a more regional basis in order to make sure seniors, young people, first-time homebuyers, and moderate-income earners, including police, firefighters, emergency service personnel, and teachers, can live closer to their jobs,” Ms. Floren said, pointing to the success of the Charter Oak Communities in Stamford, where coalitions have been built and state money used to create needed housing.

Mr. Walko will not be formally sworn in until next year but was still part of the panel. He will be replacing longtime incumbent Rep. Lile Gibbons, who is retiring. A former chairman of the town’s Board of Estimate and Taxation, Mr. Walko spoke about education in the state and was asked specifically if charter schools were a solution to increasing student performance in Connecticut. Currently there are 17 charter schools in the state, none of which are in Greenwich, and Mr. Walko said it’s still unclear from the data how effective they’ve been overall, so there is a question if pushing more money to them is the best use of taxpayer funds.

But other solutions are being discussed as well on a state level, including longer school days, which is going to be tested in three Connecticut municipalities where there have been achievement issues. Mr. Walko said the goal of the test is to provide 300 more hours of educational services through a grant from the federal government and that it would be “very interesting” to see if it translated to better performance. There were also efforts to provide more pre-K schooling, but there is a question, he said, about who will pay for that.

“There’s a report that says educational cost sharing is over $700 million underfunded,” Mr. Walko said. “The interesting thing about that is that if it were fully funded, Greenwich would actually receive 56% more money. While there are towns with greater percentages, the way they translate this is that more money would go to those needy schools. It’s not obvious that simply pouring more money into the educational cost sharing system would generate better results, and I think that’s what we have to do. We have to look at the data to see if these types of programs are working.”

 

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