By Kate Ramunni
The Municipal Opportunities & Regional Efficiencies Commission, led by Hamden state Rep. Brendan Sharkey, has already began to formulate its 2014 agenda that includes a renewed push to eliminiate motor vehicle property taxes, abolish the requirement for municipalities to post legal notices in newspapers and deliver public health and social services on a regional basis.
Sharkey re-established MORE as a bipartisan, bicameral panel in February and charged it with helping cities and towns reduce their costs and increase efficiencies through regional cooperation.
Resulting legislation set the stage for more regional approaches to education via a common school calendar, IT connectivity and software sharing through the state’s Nutmeg Network, and a framework for more efficient delivery of human services, according to the commission.
“Potential efficiencies and savings from regionalism are starting to be realized, but MORE’s mission must continue if we are to truly reduce the property tax burden – which is the ultimate goal,” said Sharkey, who chaired the original MORE Commission in 2010 when he served as House chair of the legislature’s Planning & Development Committee.
“Elimination of the ultra-regressive, universally unpopular motor vehicle tax, further municipal mandate relief, and more regional approaches to the delivery of services – particularly in the area of public health and social services - is the direction we must head.”
“I’m particularly excited about the focus on human infrastructure,” said Rep. Timothy Larson (D-East Hartford), who chairs the MORE Commission. “We all like to talk locally about fixing roads – and that is important – but we need to devise a better way of funding services for people, including addressing the costs of special education. In the non-profit sector, the Governor’s Prevention Partnership works to channel funding and resources to non-profits to strengthen them on a regional level and we need to look at ways to help these organizations maximize these resources.”
Attempts this year to abolish the car tax failed after municipal leaders came out in strong opposition to the legislation. Without the revenue from the car tax, communities would have to find that considerable funding elsewhere, such as increasing property taxes, many said. A plan to replace that revenue must be worked out before any action could be taken, municipal leaders contend.
Legislation did however create a Municipal Revenue Reimbursement Account (MRRA) as a depository to help aid towns in anticipation of the motor vehicle tax being eliminated in the future. That account was appropriated $4.9 million in seed funding under the current two-year budget.
“We recommended the eventual elimination of one of the most regressive taxes in our state,” said Rep. Jeff Berger (D-Waterbury), who chairs MORE’s Municipal Tax Authority working group. “Connecticut is the only state in the union to tax vehicles according to the respective town’s mill rate. This is an onerous method of taxation the result of which is the same vehicle make, model and year being taxed at different rates. I look forward to continuing subcommittee work and pushing for comprehensive car tax reform.”
Social service and public health functions have also been identified as an area where a more consolidated, coordinated approach can reduce costs and increase efficiencies. There are currently 76 health departments throughout the state, as well as 12 sub-regions for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and 25 “community collaborative areas” for the Department of Children and Families. This system creates confusion and inefficiencies, resulting in duplicative services and wasted taxpayer dollars.
Rep. Peggy Sayers (D-Windsor, Windsor Locks), who chaired the MORE working group on Mandates and is also deputy speaker of the House, said that certain services such as public health districts should be studied closely with an eye toward regionalization.
“There’s such a variety of public health services being offered in the state. Some smaller communities, frankly, can’t provide the services that a larger community offers. We need to study how we can make sure that everyone has access to critical services,” she said.
Eliminating the requirement that municipalities publish public notices in newspapers was among the recommendations of MORE’s Mandates working group earlier this year, but never resulted in final legislation. Ending that mandate will save towns about $5 million annually according to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.