Ken Dixon: Showdown between cities and towns

February 12, 2017

Gov. Dan Malloy has asked blue state Connecticut to put money where its politics are. Many members of the House and Senate are now seeing red.

Nothing provokes a “not in my backyard” reaction like foisting some of the state’s fiscal problems back on the richer towns, whose individual political machines send Republicans and Democrats to the Capitol with the explicit mission to defend their turf.

At stake is the need to provide more resources for cities with sky-high mill rates and failing schools, pointed out in black and white last year when a state Superior Court judge ordered massive changes to the way Connecticut public education, guaranteed under the state Constitution, is funded.

Malloy wants to force the issue and at the same time tackle a looming $1.7-billion state deficit. During his term-and-a-half, Malloy has succeeded in alienating public employee unions, hospitals and corporations.

Now, most of the state’s towns are in a snit. Essentially, Greenwich, Darien and New Canaan are being told to help Norwalk and Stamford; Shelton and Oxford to support Derby; Fairfield and Milford to throw a lifeline to Bridgeport; Ridgefield and Redding to give Danbury something for the effort.

The lawmakers from suburban and rural districts who run the General Assembly were noticeably uncomfortable the other afternoon when Malloy laid out his two-year, $20.5-billion budget plan.

“You see, we are a small state and our towns are interconnected,” Malloy said in his budget address. “We can rise together or we can fall together. We can lift one another up, or we can drag one another down. Our future depends on the decisions we make today. This session. This year.”

The applause was polite, maybe perfunctory. After all, the General Assembly has until June 7 to rewrite Malloy’s blueprint into something that an evenly split House and Senate might agree upon. If not, there’s the summer, the start of the fiscal year July 1, August, September ...

High-earning suburbs that have paid some of the state’s best salaries for teachers to flock to school systems with engaged parents and goals for college, would have to — for the first time — pay a third of their teacher pension obligations.

So would the troubled inner cities, where teaching is tougher and families are stressed in a daily survival that makes college seem an impossibility. Yet everyone seemingly agrees that cities should be the state’s economic engines.

There was Malloy’s budget chief, Ben Barnes, facing the music before the budget-writing legislative Appropriations Committee on Friday, talking about the outdated Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) formula.

“The whole function of the ECS program is based on property wealth,” Barnes said. “I would argue that when a program like that has fallen into the condition that ECS has reached right now ... what happens is, towns that don’t get enough are taxing more heavily.”

Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Waterbury and 27 other towns and cities would be the chief beneficiaries.

“These places have very, very high tax rates,” Barnes said. “I would argue that if we give more money to some of these towns ... it’s only reasonable that they should use some of that money to keep their taxes low. Higher taxes, crime, poverty: your schools aren’t going to be as good and we really want their centers to thrive ... to attract residents and business. I think education funding is about helping kids. It’s also about a community’s ability to pay. Some of that new money needs to be allowed to help them reduce taxes.”

Up in the tiers of committee seats was veteran Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, whose city would lose a cool $11 million a year in state aid.

Calling it an “incredibly devastating cut which really decimates our town and our education funding,” Slossberg politely asked for Barnes’ reasoning.

He responded with a litany. While the state’s formula for funding schools has stayed the same, Milford’s school population shrank by 10 percent, in recent years, to about 6,150. Other towns losing big bucks have seen 15- to 20-percent reductions in school populations.

The truth is, Barnes said, Milford’s grand list of taxable property has grown. The city is well off financially. Shoreline real estate is booming. “They have a really tremendous grand list, a long stretch of Route 1, a long stretch of waterfront,” he said. “The result is, the equalized net grand list per capita is very, very high” and comparable to the Gold Coast of lower Fairfield County.

With low levels of student poverty, that’s how Milford, West Hartford and Groton lose out on paper. “The numbers just came out that way,” Barnes said. “We weren’t picking on you. We’re committed to having a functioning formula.”

It’s an imaginative budget, if not illusory as it gets swallowed up in the legislative process. But the governor’s job is to give the Legislature a balanced spending and tax plan. Now it’s up to the lawmakers to figure it out for the NIMBYs back home.

Ken Dixon can be reached in the Capitol at 860-549-4670 or at kdixon@ctpost.com. Visit twitter.com/KenDixonCT. His Facebook address is kendixonct.hearst. Dixon’s Connecticut Blog-o-rama is at blog.ctnews.com/dixon/