Rural Connecticut stuck in the middle of another debate over regionalism.
Over 3,000 bills are currently being proposed in the Connecticut General Assembly; just around 200 bills will have final action taken on them by the time we adjourn in June. Any legislator can propose any bill and it gets referred to a committee where most bills die.
Two recently proposed bills SB 454 and SB 431 have stuck out to me. Both were proposed by Senator Martin Looney (D-New Haven), who also serves as the President Pro-Tempore of the State Senate. These bills, if enacted, radically change how towns and schools are funded in Connecticut and the changes are not to the advantage of small towns.
To give some context, I represent five rural towns in Northeastern Connecticut, including the smallest municipality in the state, the town of Union, which has a population of 854. The largest town I represent is Brooklyn, ranked as the 108th (out of 169) largest town in the state.
Our urban centers are the largest municipalities in the state and have real problems and tremendous poverty, whereas Connecticut’s suburbs are some of the wealthiest communities in the state. Senator Looney’s idea is that lower property taxes on higher property values in suburbia can be equalized with the high taxes and low property values combined with a lack of wealth in the cities in order to provide more resources to invest in our urban areas. Senator Looney is proposing a concept to improve the quality of life in New Haven, I get it. I am also acknowledging that the issues facing our Urban centers are real and we need our cities to be healthy for our State to be prosperous. However, Rural Connecticut is not in the equation and is constantly being lumped in by some as having the same characteristics as a suburb. Eastford is not Norwalk, Woodstock is not Greenwich.
Windham County is the poorest county in the state of Connecticut. Urban poverty is different from rural poverty and outside of charity and our non-profits, we do not have a plan to deal with it. We have a problem with homelessness, and I sit on a committee that meets once a month at TEEG, one of our non-profits, and we sit around the table spinning our wheels on how to end homelessness with virtually no resources. I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that rural towns run lean municipal budgets and cover basic government services and education. Towns plow and fix the roads and also operate a school. There is no town-provided water service, limited-to-no town-provided sewer service, no trash pickup, a regional state police troop, volunteer fire departments, and a relatively sparse commercial footprint.
We cannot afford to simply repeal the municipal car tax and replace it with a statewide tax that is distributed elsewhere and create a one mill increase on your residence that goes to the state. It would simply fall back to the homeowner to pay more and it will not go to local services. The towns I represent would not be able to function independently under this proposed system, period. Connecticut is a home rule state, meaning that the General Assembly has incorporated towns/cities, most of them founded in the 1700s, and have given them authority to manage their own affairs. I would much rather have had the debate be genuine over repealing “Home Rule” than dismantling small towns by suffocating them financially.
Lastly, forcing the consolidation of school districts which currently have less than 40K Students, as suggested in SB 454, is simply untenable. This bill would set up regional districts that mirror probate districts. So basically, a student who lives in Ashford could potently attend school in Thompson, which is roughly 22 miles or 30 minutes in a straight shot, not counting stopping, to pick up students. This is ridiculous and no parent or educator thinks that is a good idea for a 1st Grader.
Small rural towns have looked to regionalism to more efficiently use the taxpayer’s dollar. Towns in the 50th district operate, in effect, a regional high school in Woodstock Academy, Regional 911 Dispatch, Regional Paramedic Service, Regional Health District, Regional Animal Services, Regional Engineering and Planning Services, Regional Veterans Services, share heavy equipment, and many more examples of towns helping each other. These decisions were all voluntary and were made on the local level.
It could be said that Senator Looney, while proposing these bills, is merely representing the needs of his constituents. However as the President Pro Tem of the Senate, the top leader in that chamber he has failed to look at the big picture and suggest public policy that does not pit residents in one part of the State against residents in another. Yes, we need to make our cities stable, but it CANNOT be at the expense of rural small town Connecticut.
Please feel free to reach out and contact me at @RepPatBoyd or email at firstname.lastname@example.org