HARTFORD — The mayors of Connecticut’s largest cities joined forces for the first time in two years yesterday to protest Gov. John Rowland’s latest budget proposal, which would narrow an estimated $350 million spending deficit partially through cuts in aid to the state’s municipalities.
At a state Capitol press conference organized by New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., mayors from Hartford, Bridgeport, Stamford and Middletown stood side by side with several other top executives and urged the governor and state Legislature to restore the education aid and Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT, funding that would be cut under the plan.
Using a wide range of metaphors, each mayor issued the same message to Rowland: Find another way of closing the budget gap.
“When the national economy sneezes, states get a cold but towns get pneumonia,” said Norwalk Mayor Alex Knopp, who urged his former colleagues in the Legislature to “act in good faith.”
East Hartford Mayor Timothy Larson used a different metaphor.
“We are down to the veins, and now we’re going into the bones,” he said.
Reiterating a warning he issued at a Jan. 31 press conference in New Haven, DeStefano said yesterday that the state must change its property tax scheme if it does not want to send municipalities into fiscal crises.
Since cities in Connecticut have only two primary sources of revenue — property taxes and state aid — cuts in funding often force local governments to raise taxes.
“Every obligation we have is defined by state government, so we can’t levy a new tax unless the state gives us the authority to do so,” said DeStefano, who pointed out that all but 10 of the state’s 169 municipalities have been forced to raise property taxes over the last decade.
That is exactly what the mayors said they will have to do again this year if the state continues to balance its books without regard for its cities.
“There’s no possible way to avoid a tax increase this year,” Middletown Mayor Domenique Thornton said. “What this represents is a shift of the burden from the state to its cities.”
DeStefano applauded the state Legislature’s approval yesterday morning of a 61-cent per pack cigarette tax hike — the state’s first major tax increase in seven years.
DeStefano said he doubted the tax increase was “really about smoking,” but he praised it as a big step toward “lifting the burden on cities.”
For many of the cities represented in the meeting room yesterday, however, the new state tax is far from a panacea.
Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez said the state’s capital city will face a $50 million budget deficit next year.
“Like many of these cities, Hartford is facing increased costs to deliver the same services,” he said.
Under Rowland’s spending plan, which he unveiled Feb. 6, New Haven itself stands to lose about $4 million in state aid even though the city’s expenditures will continue to grow next year.
Most of the cuts will affect New Haven’s share of the Education Cost Sharing, or ECS; Revenue Sharing; and PILOT grants.
The PILOT program compensates municipalities for the tax-exempt properties of hospitals, colleges and state-owned land.
The mayors released a report at the press conference in which they called on the state to restore all PILOT and ECS funding or face the consequences of cities in fiscal turmoil.
In January — before Rowland released his budget — DeStefano announced a three-year “stabilization plan” designed to make sure New Haven will not confront a crisis like the one Hartford currently faces. DeStefano’s plan will allow the city to absorb its drop in revenue through early retirement packages and cuts in employee health care benefits.
The governor and the Democratic leadership in the General Assembly will iron out the details of the $13.5 billion budget over the next few months, even as they grapple with another fiscal problem — the deficit is expected to rise to $650 million by next year.
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