Speaking for Small Connecticut Towns with COST’s Betsy Gara

As Betsy Gara explains it, for the small towns she represents, state funding is not just a matter of dollars and cents, but weeks and months.  Tree-trimming, declining enrollments, recycling revenues, the summer schedule for road paving, the winter schedule for salting and clearing roads. Up in Hartford, these daily-life constraints can be lost as governors and state senators and representatives fight for leverage and long-term legislative priorities, spending and spending cuts.

“I think his heart is certainly in the right place,” said Gara, when asked to characterize the Lamont administration. “But I think we do have some concerns with the fact that, for example with the bond package, that because the governor’s office is trying to negotiate support for tolls, that the bond package is being held hostage, and that is putting towns in a really difficult place.”

Squeezed between ever-rising costs, minimum spending requirements for schools, and the reality that local taxpayers won’t simply rubber stamp higher property taxes, a town’s fiscal reserve only provides so much budgetary flexibility, according Gara.

“So trying to get the people in the new administration understand that towns need predictability, they need to be able to rely on revenues,” said Gara. “And they can’t just turn to the property tax every time they need some program or to fulfill their requirements of a mandate, they’re not going to get that approved by the taxpayers. And so they’re putting towns in a really difficult position.”

A resident of Durham, with a law degree from Quinnipiac University School of Law, after six years as public policy director, Betsy Gara stepped into the role of executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST) in 2012. She’s also over the years served on the Region 13 School Board, and she continues to serve as executive director of the Connecticut Water Works Association.

Of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities, a large majority — about 142 — are small towns with less than 35,000 residents and significantly different needs than the state’s cities. 85% are members of COST, according to the group’s website.

Gara sat down with CT Examiner staff on Thursday to discuss her current work and to preview the organization’s plans for the coming legislative session.

Pensions and labor

Asked how she negotiates party politics in a state that leans Democratic and with a diverse membership likely more conservative than the average, Gara generally downplayed the meaningfulness of party affiliation on the local level.

“I don’t even know half the time where the municipal leaders are in terms of their party affiliation. For example, on our board of directors it just doesn’t come up. And so sometimes I’m surprised because I heard somebody talking, and I would think that they’re one party or the other and they’re not. And that’s always kind of interesting. But I think the issues remain the same, and so on a municipal level, I think the party affiliation means a very different thing. I don’t think they’re necessarily, you know, party stalwarts,” said Gara.

Labor issues, including the organization’s efforts to increase the prevailing wage threshold — which was raised to $1 million for new construction effective October 31, 2017 — and collective bargaining have not received the support of every municipal leader, Gara acknowledged, but she that other than adding some recommendations to the platform, no one has ever asked to eliminate the reference to the prevailing wage or collective bargaining issues. “I think they recognize that as a municipal advocacy organization, we have to be out for those kinds of issues.” 

As for pensions, which are significant burden to balancing the state budget, COST has helped spearhead opposition to shifting that burden to the local level.

“I think we’ve been very upfront in opposing efforts to shift the teachers’ pension costs to towns, because first of all, when Governor Malloy proposed that, it was going to be that towns had to assume a third of the unfunded pension liability, that was just patently unfair,” she said. “When you look at historically, the fact that they had failed to make the required contributions for more than 70 years … and all you’re doing is taking it off the state balance sheet and putting it on to the town’s balance sheet. That doesn’t address any of the fundamental concerns.”

Under the new administration, Gara said the proposed budget was “less onerous,” but didn’t give towns a real opportunity to address costs going forward. “And so a lot of towns have said, you know what, we’ve managed to change our pension system on the local level, we’ve moved people from a defined benefit contribution to a 401k, or other kinds of less expensive plans.  And what’s going to happen is we have to assume a portion of the teachers’ pension costs and they have a defined benefit plan. I know that the next time we’re up for collective bargaining, the other units are going to say, wait a minute, you’re paying for defined benefit plan for them, how about us, and so it becomes one more way that towns are going to end up having to absorb these costs at a local level. And, you know, they really don’t have a lot of options to fund any of these things.”

School regionalization

In CT Mirror’s roundup of winners and losers in the last legislative session, the paper quotes Gara memorably concluding that there was “no piece left,” of bills legislating “carrots as well as sticks to prod small school districts into sharing services.” According to Gara, the three proposals which “came out of the blue,” at first appeared aimed at reducing costs for smaller towns.

Said Gara, “There were three proposals in particular that would have forced regionalization of school districts. And they just kind of came out of the blue. They were proposed bills, which as you probably know, are not fleshed out. They are two or three lines, basically a statement of purpose. And people were very nervous about what it was they were really trying to get up to. And there was this assumption that you could actually force this regionalization and there would be tons of money to be saved, and this would solve all the problems and towns going to lower their property taxes.”

According to Gara, COST reviewed various studies that concluded school regionalization wouldn’t provide cost savings. She said that her organization was currently reviewing a draft report by the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations on recommending efficiencies for small towns, but she said that some of the ideas, like  five-year municipal budgets didn’t make a lot of sense.

Gara suggested that towns could benefit from a set of best management practices to guide school leaders.

Mill rates, housing values, property taxes

“There is a lot of concern that the mill rates, even in the small towns, have crept up. We really need to start comparing mill rates. I think people need to understand that it is really a multiplier, and depends on the assessed value of the homes … but when those property taxes go up, the housing values go down — that’s something that I think we need to be more focused on in this state.”

The formula is not as simple as thinking wealthy towns don’t need state money whereas poorer towns or cities do, she said. 

“You have to remember, first of all, it’s not state money, it’s taxpayer money. There are people that feel like they pay more than their fair share because they send a lot of their tax dollars to Hartford, and they get very little back in terms of services,” she said. “And there is a tipping point … where people say, you know what, I just can’t afford to continue to pay these taxes when I look at some of the other states where I can keep more of my money and have that same quality of life.”

Gara said the state’s Educational Minimum Budget Requirement is constant issue.

“Everyone talks about we need to reduce the education budgets and control education spending … and enrollment has really significantly dropped. And yet, when towns tried to reflect that in their budget, when they try to reduce the education budget, they are held up by this minimum budget requirement,” she said. “There are certain exceptions… if your enrollment has declined… if you demonstrated you’ve done some shared services… but you’re always waiting for the State Department of Education to approve it and they’re very slow … I think very few towns have actually managed to get right, those reductions.”

Affordable housing

Asked how her organization made sense of a 10% goal of affordable housing for towns like Lyme, which have relatively little infrastructure, and few services.  Gara said that it was a concern for many member towns, that felt squeezed on the one hand by the need for environmental protection and historic preservation, and on the other by developers proposing large housing projects in environmentally sensitive areas.”

“It is an issue that a lot of our towns are very concerned about,” said Gara, “because they feel that [the affordable housing statute] 8-30g encourages developers to come in with massive, affordable housing projects that aren’t compatible with either the infrastructure that they have, for example, and sometimes they just don’t have the water and sewer infrastructure to support those kinds of developments. And others are trying to put them on environmentally sensitive areas.”

Gara said that Connecticut Department of Housing Commissioner Seila Mosquera-Bruno had invited legislators, Connecticut Council of Municipalities, COST and housing advocates to a meeting next week to discuss the issue.

“I think they throw out a bill up at the state capitol and the bill will basically say, if you don’t meet that 10% goal, you’re going to lose your… last year it was your discretionary funding. We’re saying, well that’s really not the way to go about it. Because discretionary funding, under the definition that they use is, is a lot of things that towns need to actually address some of the infrastructure issues they are facing… so Clean Water funds, open space, farmland preservation, historic preservation, all those are discretionary and funding … And that’s a real problem, because a lot of times, it’s not that the local government that has some concerns with the proposal. It’s a lot of times it’s the public. And so you, you’re basically penalizing the local government that may need that funding from the Clean Water Fund to meet an EPA requirement, or State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection consent order or whatever.”

A passion for policy and politics

Gara said at first she majored in journalism at UConn during the heyday of Watergate, but after sitting through one school board meeting she opted instead for political science. An internship in Hartford sparked a passion for policy and politics, but not a desire for elected office.

“I just end up falling in love with this — I just love the process, but I never really wanted to run for office … I always liked public policy more,” she said

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