STONINGTON — Reducing the cost of local government by realigning how public services are delivered, and decreasing Connecticut’s "over-reliance" on the property tax were the top two policy goals of the Lamont-Bysiewicz Shared Services transition team, which gathered at the Stonington police station this week.
Brendan Sharkey, co-chair of the committee and a former speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives, said reducing the cost of local government required that “we re-imagine how we do local government."
“What is key to that is we have to make changes at all levels of government, including the state, to be able to really embrace and enable possibilities with regard to realizing efficiencies at the local level," he said.
He said the other goal was to reduce reliance on the property tax because it was a “drag on the state’s economic competitiveness.” He said that 42 percent of all taxes collected in Connecticut were through property taxes.
“More than the income tax, more than the sales tax, more than the corporate tax, it’s the property tax that winds up driving what we provide at the local level,” he said.
High property taxes, he contended, are the result of inefficient delivery of services at the local level, which he said was unsustainable not only for local governments but also for the state.
The team, which met to discuss its recommendations, is part of the policy apparatus of incoming Gov. Ned Lamont and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz.
Promoting shared services in public service delivery and providing alternative revenue services will strengthen the state’s economic competitiveness and lead to economic growth and job creation, Sharkey said.
An example is Stonington’s recent police radio upgrade, which involved erecting an antenna that provides "interoperability" with the state’s system. The town spent $1.33 million and received a far more robust system worth closer to $10 million, while also gaining the advantage of the state’s resources, according to the town's consultant.
The committee’s goals for Lamont’s first 100 days, beginning on Jan. 9, include appointing an undersecretary of comprehensive planning and intergovernmental policy, restructuring the Advisory Committee on Intergovernmental Relations, requiring the use of the Uniform Chart of Accounts by all municipalities and school districts, and beginning a process to shift the burden of proof for special education.
One idea for funding local and regional services included bifurcating municipal and school board property tax levies.
“There was consensus within our group, that transparency into the costs of the Board of Education, in real time, is a really valuable tool that enables the Uniform Chart of Accounts, the measurement tools and the data-driven analyses to be effective,” Sharkey said.
Mike Urgo, North Stonington first selectman, said separating the municipal and education budgets had resulted in voters rejecting his town's budgets over and over.
“It’s always generally because of the education side and they have to pass together for us to have an actual budget,” he said. “I think bifurcating is going to be very harmful to the collaborative spirit of the education and town sides working together."
According to the state Office of Policy and Management website, state law requires municipalities and school districts to file annual reports with OPM and the state Department of Education, respectively, prepared in accordance with the UCOA. However, there is no requirement for municipalities or school districts to replace their current accounts with the uniform system. OPM says the chart is a tool for organizing financial activities and transactions, and "should be viewed as part of a complete financial information system that links the operations of various departments, agencies and offices."
Lamot's committee is advocating that the Uniform Chart of Accounts be mandatory for municipalities. The idea is that with accurate data, state grants could be matched to the level of municipal government efficiency.
After the meeting Stonington First Selectman Simmons said there had always been controversy over regionalism and home rule.
“But the bottom line for us as a committee and the bottom line for me as a municipal leader is the state can’t afford everything for everybody,” he said. “We have to learn how to collaborate, just the way the police department did with the state and saved millions of dollars and got a better and cheaper system rather than doing it all by ourselves. We cannot afford to be afraid to reach out and collaborate.”