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EXCLUSIVE: Small Towns Leader Talks Tolls, Pensions, and Towns’ “Top” Priority in ’18

January 31, 2018 By Staff
EXCLUSIVE: Small Towns Leader Talks Tolls, Pensions, and Towns’ “Top” Priority in ’18

Reclaim Connecticut caught up with Betsy Gara, the executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST), on a number of issues that matter to small towns and their leaders.

Connecticut is full of small towns. As of 2016, almost half of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities had populations of under 10,000.

So small-town issues matter, at the local level and, of course, at the state level as well.

Reclaim Connecticut caught up on Tuesday with Betsy Gara, the executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST), for her take on a number of issues impacting small towns in Connecticut heading into 2018.

“TOP” PRIORITY

Reclaim Connecticut asked Gara what COST’s top priority is going in to the Connecticut legislature’s 2018 session, which starts in February.

“One of the top priorities is providing towns with the tools to control educational expenditures,” Gara said. “In small towns, the education budget comprises between 70-80 percent of the local budget, and as a result towns are looking for ways to control property tax levels, and have identified education costs as one of the priorities.”

On that subject, Reclaim Connecticut asked Gara if COST anticipates Gov. Dan Malloy (D-Conn.) will rehash his proposal to have municipalities contribute to teachers’ pension costs.

“We do expect that there will be a proposal by the governor,” Gara said.

“We continue to oppose proposals to shift costs to towns,” she added, “because towns have had no say in making sure that contributions have been made, and managing the fund, and in setting pension parameters.”

Gara suggested the way forward may be “defined contribution” plans instead of “defined benefit plans,” saying “a lot of towns” have moved to the defined contribution model “to save money and control property tax levels.”

Gara did not close the door to towns accepting “a portion of the responsibility,” but said such a move would have to come with greater flexibility for towns to “negotiate changes in pension funds and pension benefits.”

“No one has reached out to us,” Gara added. “But we’re talking internally about whether or not that is something we should explore.”

TOLLS?

Reclaim Connecticut asked Gara about the imposition of tolls in Connecticut. Our conversation came hours before The Hartford Courant reported that Malloy will propose reinstating tolls in Connecticut.

“We don’t have a position,” Gara said, when asked what COST’s response to reinstating tolls would be. She added, though, that the council’s board of directors is meeting this week.

Gara said that COST is worried about the Malloy administration’s decision to hold back funding for a number of local transportation projects, and said the legislature and the administration should prioritize transportation funding in the new year.

“So we have asked leaders to prioritize town aid road funds, to make sure that these funds are going to be made available to towns,” Gara said. “This is, for many small towns, a substantial amount of funding that they rely on to maintain a local infrastructure which is critical to our local economies.”

AND EVERYTHING ELSE…

The rest of Reclaim Connecticut’s conversation with Gara covered the gamut.

  • Gara said “mandate relief [for small towns] is certainly always at the top of our agenda,” for this year and beyond
  • COST wants to “address the threshold [on prevailing wage] for renovations,” after the 2017 session dealt with the threshold on prevailing wage for new construction
  • COST wants the legislature to make changes “relative to binding arbitration,” what Gara said is “certainly a big issue”
  • COST is also interested in how the state government addresses regionalism: “What we’ve been pointing out to people is that there has been, in fact, a lot of regionalization in Connecticut.”

One thing is clear: 2018 will be a busy year for advocacy and activity among Connecticut’s small towns. COST looks to be at the forefront.