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Legislative issues and their potential impact on region

A three-month long legislative session opens Feb. 8 at the capital in Hartford. What new laws and changes will the General Assembly debate?

From this part of the state, the regional priorities are clear, as spelled out a special joint meeting on Jan. 24 of the Northwestern Connecticut Council of Governments (COG) and the Litchfield Hills Council of Elected Officials (LHCEO).

COG is a group of the first selectmen from nine area towns, including all the towns in the Region One School District. LHCEO is made up of first selectmen from 11 other Litchfield County towns.

Held at the UConn Extension Center in Torrington, it brought to a “round table” forum first selectmen from 14 of the 20 member towns (all of this area was represented, except for North Canaan), Torrington Mayor Ryan Bingham, state Representatives John Piscopo (R-76), Craig Miner (R-66), Roberta Willis (D-64)and Michelle Cook (D-65) and state Sen.  Andrew Roraback (R-30).

It was a chance for local leaders to talk about what their towns need from Hartford, and for them to hear about what is factoring into various issues as the political climate heats up. The 90-minute session allowed for a presentation and later discussion of priorities, and for brief comments by each legislator to address the priorities and other issues.

Hot topics were:

• Education, specifically minimum budget requirements and special education funding.

• Public safety, including storm response, resident state troopers and the rumored closing of Troop B in North Canaan.

• State mandates, as they apply to prevailing wage and the proposed combining of regional planning agencies.

Roxbury First Selectman Barbara Henry, who is also president of COST, the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, opened with comments on last year’s regional priorities, saying that some of the “same old issues” remain to be addressed. She listed recreational liability, municipal conveyance tax, state Small Town Economic Assistance Program (STEAP) grants and town aid in general.

Education

Falls Village First Selectman and COG Chairman Patricia Mechare spoke to the education issues.

She said the state needs to require towns to have a minimum budget requirement that reflects the actual per-pupil cost. She used her town’s elementary school as an example; student population is declining there, as is the trend in the region. At about 80 students, the actual cost per pupil is $21-22,000, but the budget does not come near to reflecting that.

“In Cornwall it’s pretty much the same,” Mechare said. “It doesn’t give us room to do anything.”

As for special education funding, “One child outplaced can change any town’s budget dramatically. We would like the state to actually do what it’s supposed to do and support special education.”

Public safety

Cornwall First Selectman Gordon Ridgway spoke to public safety concerns. Last year’s storms and the disastrous power outages are still having impacts.

He spoke of businesses, already struggling from the recession, that lost quite a bit in the storms.

“We all know things could have gone better,” he said, calling for “common sense” improvements such as enforcing fast response from CL&P and the phone and cable companies.

Piscopo advocated for finding out what the mistakes were, rather than instituting “heavy-handed mandates for staffing and other costs that would only drive up rates, which [in Connecticut] are already the highest in the nation.”

State police

Ridgway said the joint councils are also asking for legislation that would allow towns to share a resident state trooper, and for a town’s share of that program cost to not be increased, as has been proposed in the past.

As for the State Police Troop B barracks, Ridgway deferred to Roraback, who has been working on the matter. The Department of Public Safety (DPS) has for some time now had a plan to consolidate dispatch services from Troop B and Troop A (in Southbury) to Troop L in Litchfield. It sparked rumors, particularly among state troopers, that the North Canaan barracks would close completely.

DPS adamantly denied the rumors, and the matter seemed closed —until recently, when former state trooper and now Salisbury Selectman Mark Lauretano pressed the matter.

Roraback said he received assurances the week before the meeting that nothing had changed since the state police officials met with town leaders in that very room in Torrington last summer.

“What’s gotten my attention,” he said, “was that Mark asked for a meeting with me, but he is not the only one I have heard from. Many state troopers are personal friends, and they have been whispering in my ear. They are the people on the ground in the state police force. Both retired and active troopers have asked me a series of questions.”

Roraback asked DPS for a plan for the consolidation, which is going to take some coordination and cost.

“I was told there is no plan. Well, it’s a pretty big deal to consolidate dispatch and not have a plan or budget. I have asked for planning documents so we can better understand the timetable, costs and benefits. Troop B may not close, but it could be there is no warm body there overnight or fewer road troopers, and we need to know that.”

Prevailing wage concerns

Prevailing wage concerns were presented by Litchfield First Selectman Leo Paul. Prevailing wage refers to regulated pay and benefits for laborers on public works projects and is aimed at leveling the playing field when it comes to bidding.

But wage rates have not changed in 20 years, while inflation has driven the cost of many projects up beyond the current thresholds of $100,000 for renovations and $400,000 for new construction.  

LHCEO and COG have been advocating for a change for years. They are calling this time for prevailing wage rates to apply only to projects over $1 million, and for rates to be indexed to the inflation rate.

Roraback brought everyone in the room up to speed on the very recent renovation project at Housatonic Valley Regional High School to create a science and technology center.

It was done through the local nonprofit 21st Century Fund, with the help of a lot of volunteer labor. The Department of Labor found them in violation of prevailing wage regulations — to the tune of $60,000.

“If this example doesn’t demonstrate the lunacy of this law, nothing does,” Roraback said.

The prevailing wage topic generated a great deal of discussion. No one disagreed with the planning agencies’ proposal, but there was some wrangling over whether or not a united front is being presented by lobbying groups such as COST and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

Miner spoke long and passionately about bringing one  large voice to Hartford on the issues that matter to small towns.

As for a consolidation of COG and LHCEO, while there may be some overlap, the agencies issued a statement saying the geographic boundaries established more than 50 years ago have served the towns well. They have seen nothing from the state to indicate changes will benefit the towns served.

Some other topics were liquor sale restructuring, a plan it appeared no one in the room liked (see story, Page A1); and state pension plans. Roraback said there is a desperate need to restructure the pension plan, but the real problem is abuses and padding with overtime pay.

Roraback does not support the governor’s proposal to allow online gambling, nor does he like the idea of traffic cameras at intersections.

“I believe traffic laws should be upheld, but I’m not enthusiastic about having the eyes of the government on me as I travel around.”

No one answers the phone

The overarching issue is, not surprisingly, funding. Federal money that filters down through state programs is promised but has yet to make many appearances, adding to state budget fears.

Legislators said they worry, too, that badly needed state aid to towns won’t be funded, and they expressed a lack of confidence in the governor’s ideas about new ways to raise revenues.

Henry offered fuel assistance as an example of how things appear to be getting worse. People in her town who qualified for fuel assistance in the past, and by this time of the winter had gotten a delivery or two, have yet to even get an answer. The town has been buying fuel oil for residents who would otherwise be left in the cold.

“The question is, is it money for the program, or someone to answer the phone?” said Miner, suggesting it is not just a matter of underfunding.

He said the state is holding off several months on filling vacancies in various departments to save money.

“I believe that’s the reason why people don’t get an answer, and it applies to any area of public assistance. It’s part of the administration’s strategy to balance the budget.”

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