BRISTOL - Leaders of several Central Connecticut communities weighed in on topics such as regionalization and cost saving measures being taken due to the state budget Monday at the Municipal Collaborative Forum.
The forum, held at DoubleTree by Hilton and sponsored by the Central CT Chambers of Commerce included Bristol Mayor Ken Cockayne, Plymouth Mayor David Merchant, Plainville Town Manager Robert E. Lee, and other officials from surrounding towns.
Panelists were introduced by Central CT Chambers President and CEO Cindy Scoville, chairwoman Susan Sadecki and Legislative Action Chairman Kurt Barwis. Guests included local business leaders and town officials as well as legislators such as state Rep. Whit Betts and state Rep. William Petit. Paul Lavoie was the event moderator.
“We have come together today to talk about the condition of the State of Connecticut,” Scoville began. “Susan Sadecki and I have visited the state to ask what we can do to help with the state budget. We have met with business and municipal leaders and their answer has been the same: the state needs to control spending, just like we do at our municipalities and in our businesses.”
Lavoie then painted a picture of Connecticut in a death spiral.
“This forum was created in an attempt to use business principles, logic and common sense to help get Connecticut’s fiscal house in order,” he said. “What has happened to Connecticut in the last 40 years? We have some great assets and our cities have great bones but we have been driven way off-track and this is not just a Democrat or Republican problem. Fifty percent of businesses right now aim to close or have moved out of state. Many of those that had the means already have done so. Those that remain bear a profound tax burden. Connecticut does not have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem.”
Lavoie then asked community leaders what efforts they have been taking to reduce costs or collaborate with other municipalities.
Merchant said that this was an issue “near and dear” to his heart.
“I think that collaboration is the best solution that we have but it is hard to pull off,” he said. “A few years ago we purchased a big pothole fixer which we share with Bristol and Plainville. Our animal control officers have partnered with Thomaston and we use their dog pound. Why couldn’t we have our police department be a precinct of the Bristol Police Department? We also share cell towers with Thomaston, which has cut our costs in half. However, a few years ago, we tried to build a high school with Thomaston and that failed. People couldn’t agree if we wanted to have our sports team named the Golden Bears or the Kangaroos and so we each built our own schools, resulting in us losing $40 million.”
Lee said that he supports regionalization because it could save “a lot of money.”
“I have been in local government for 40 years and I believe that the best way to approach this is to begin with a fresh slate,” he said. “We should also set a rule where if regionalization doesn’t lead to savings of at least 25 percent - in other words generating savings in a meaningful way - we shouldn’t bother. I propose that we start with education, which is where most of our taxes go.”
Cockayne said that he frequently discusses budgets with other municipal leaders and shares ideas with them.
“Once you get in this seat, you have to work together or you are going to fail,” he said. “As for saving costs inside our municipality, we have to ask, if a job becomes vacant do we fill it? It takes true leadership to say no, we don’t need it, we can get things done with less.”
Cockayne said that he has also spoken with state legislators about allowing municipalities to place more controls on the Board of Education.
“The Board of Education gets a lump sum from the municipalities which they can spend as they please,” he said. “We need line item vetting. They can say that they want $100,000 for smart-boards and then spend it all on a party and we couldn’t do anything about it.”
Cockayne also said that he has urged state legislators to do away with mandates.
“In Hartford recently someone passed a law that forced all municipalities to put different reflectors on street signs,” he said. “That cost us $90,000 that could have been used to hire two teachers.”
Brian M. Johnson can be reached at 860-973-1806 or firstname.lastname@example.org.