Bristol Mayor Zoppo-Sassu Responses to Lamont’s Budget

Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu | Photo (c) Michael Skolnik

Governor Ned Lamont presented his budget proposal to the state legislature. I was pleased with the Governor’s tone of civility and bipartisanship, and I am glad to see that he is making an earnest attempt to reach out to members on both sides of the aisle to critique his plan and offer alternative solutions to address Connecticut’s budget crisis. It is clear to me that Governor Lamont does not intend to adopt the same “My way or the highway” approach as his immediate predecessor, which we have already learned in Bristol is not a good way to approach governing or solving complex problems like a major budget crisis.

From a state funding perspective, Bristol will receive the same amount of state aid for the PILOT program as it did last year ($380,562); the same for the Municipal Stabilization Grant ($400,282); the same for the crucial Municipal Projects which is infrastructure improvements ($2,486,925); and a small boost in the Education Cost Sharing base category of approximately $975,000. The allocation for Adult Education remains roughly the same, down only a few hundred dollars from last year, for a total of $309,376. Overall the State’s contribution to the Board of Education remains the same, at over a $47 million commitment to the education side of the budget, and additional funds due to our status as an Alliance District.

Here are several items from the Governor’s proposal that I think are most relevant to the City of Bristol. First, let’s start with the good news:

  1. Municipal aid funding remains the same from last year through next year
  2. A significant emphasis will be placed on bonding for projects which directly enhance economic and workforce development within communities. With everything that Bristol has going on downtown and with our growing industrial parks, we expect to be able to leverage existing opportunities and resources to compliment this new focus, and obtain our fair share of state resources to help bolster these projects.
  3. Governor Lamont is prioritizing revamping the state’s IT infrastructure. Bristol is also beginning to examine what we can do on the local level to pursue IT innovations and efficiencies, and we expect there to be some collaboration between our efforts and the state’s renewed focus in this area.
  4. Governor Lamont has committed to fully fund clean energy and energy efficiency programs, and a willingness to invest in preparing future generations as well as retraining incumbent workers for “green-collar” jobs. As my administration works with the newly formed city Energy Commission, we will monitor what programs and opportunities come down the pike that will enhance our efforts to become more energy efficient and save taxpayer resources.
  5. Towns and cities may have to contribute more to the Teachers’ Retirement Fund. Our teachers deserve stability, and Bristol is willing to do its fair share to work with the new administration to provide that stability for our teachers.
  6. Finally, in a historic first, yesterday the Governor’s budget included a provision to fully fund medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for people struggling with opioid-use disorder in jails and prisons, allocating $2 million to MAT for fiscal year 2020 and another $6 million for fiscal year 2021. This will create a full, comprehensive program for everyone with opioid addiction in Connecticut jails and prisons. In Bristol, we have already done so much work with the Opioid Task Force to build a framework for addressing this most severe problem. Knowing that the administration is equally committed to addressing the opioid crisis is crucial to realizing success in breaking the cycle of opioid addiction in our communities.

The fact that incarcerated individuals will get the treatment they need to get healthy will have significant return on investment when these individuals return to their home communities and are already in recovery.

Of course, while the Governor’s budget proposal contains a lot to be optimistic about, there are some items that are cause for concern from our point of view here in Bristol. These are the items which we will be watching very closely, and which we will be sure to advocate against over the coming months, if necessary:

  1. Only 60% of prior funding will be restored to the nine regional Councils of Governments (COGs,) As a member of the Naugatuck Valley Regional Council of Governments, it is in Bristol’s best interest to make sure that our COG receives the funding we need to continue to collaborate with our neighbors and take advantage of the extensive resources this network of local government provides our community. If we want to talk about regionalism, we need to support those organizations that are making it work.
  2. There has been some discussion of combining all of the municipal pension obligations into one large pool. Bristol has managed its pension liabilities extremely well over the past several decades, and we are very fortunate to have our pensions overfunded at approximately 149%. It is not in our community’s best interest to see this proposal come to fruition, or to be penalized for effectively managing our pension obligation to our employees over the last 40 years.
  3. Other various potentially unfunded mandates are interspersed throughout the proposal, and are also currently being considered by different committees in the legislature. We will continue to work with our state delegation and members of the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments to push back against mandates which present a burden to our tax base.

There are many other notable items from yesterday’s budget presentation. Among them is the Governor’s proposal to make the sales tax more equitable by better collecting taxes from online purchases and digital downloads. While this may take some getting used to, more equitable collection of sales tax will create a level playing field for our local businesses that otherwise find it hard to compete with the tax advantages enjoyed by mega-online retailers.

I encourage residents who feel strongly about his budget proposals to reach out to their respective state legislators or to call the Governor’s office at (860) 566-4840. He has signaled that he is open to any conversation that helps solve the fiscal crisis.

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