Push for Regional Cooperation Intensifies in Connecticut

Push for Regional Cooperation Intensifies in Connecticut

Associated Press, Tuesday, August 23, 2016

BY SUSAN HAIGH

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Facing a massive deficit that’s more than 12 percent of his city’s budget, the new mayor of Hartford is appealing to wealthier neighbors to help find regional solutions that benefit Connecticut’s struggling capital city and its suburbs.

Luke Bronin, a Democrat who took office in January, is pitching the idea of greater regionalism. While acknowledging Hartford has made some poor financial decisions, he reminds people that his and other Connecticut communities can only tax local property.

And in Hartford, which is nearly 18 square miles, “there’s basically too little property” to pay the bills. “That is a municipal funding structure that’s broken,” Bronin said. “If we want to have strong, vibrant cities that can be engines of growth for our state, we’ve got to fix that and we’ve got to fix it quickly.” Bronin’s personal campaign isn’t the first push for greater cooperation between the 169 cities and towns in a state of 3.6 million.

Some communities already purchase items together in bulk and share equipment. But advocates of regionalism in the General Assembly, who have been passing bills to encourage municipal cooperation, agree there’s a new urgency for bigger initiatives given the financial challenges confronting local communities and the state, which is grappling with its own projected budget deficits.

Facing fiscal realities back to top

“We have to face the reality the state cannot continue to subsidize the inherent inefficiencies in our current system,” said House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, a Democrat from Hamden. “When you have every town doing the same thing over and over again, that just inherently is a waste of taxpayer dollars.” It’s a scenario unique to New England, dating back to the Colonial period, Sharkey said.

"Towns would form around a church and build a green," noted Sharkey. "Members with religious differences would later splinter off and set up another church with another green elsewhere. “That tradition developed over time, over the centuries, into the system we have now,” he said.

Sharkey, who is retiring from the legislature, predicts lawmakers may start getting tough on communities who refuse to work together to save money, possibly tying state aid to how efficient a community is operating.

Democrat Joe Ganim, mayor of Bridgeport, said recent legislation setting aside a small portion of the state sales tax for municipalities gives him hope lawmakers realize cities and towns need additional revenue streams. He said relying on the property tax to fund local governments and schools “is just a ridiculous formula.”

Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, a Republican and president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said his organization is developing its own plan for lawmakers to consider when they return in January.

Boughton contends municipalities need additional taxing authority and suggested regional councils of governments could distribute those funds, bypassing the state. “There are a lot of different ways to go out there and raise revenue that we haven’t looked at,” he said.

Bronin isn’t wedded to any particular ideas for helping his city or encouraging more cooperation. Rather, he wants to build a coalition to push for strong, healthy cities. “If folks who live in the suburbs around Hartford want their kids and grandkids to move back to the area, if they want their kids and grandkids to get jobs in the area, if they want to be able to sell their house down the road for more than they bought it,” he said, “then they have a direct interest in making sure there’s a strong, successful city in the center of the region.”