Controlling Unfunded Mandates

Not happy with your Property Taxes?

Fairfield Patch: http://fairfield.patch.com/groups/chris-desanctiss-blog/p/bp–not-happy-with-your-property-taxes-call-your-stat729253428d

Chris DeSanctis explains why Unfunded Mandates from Hartford are causing our property taxes to rise, and are a major problem for us here in Fairfield.

In case you missed it, the cover story in Barron’s on August 25th ranked Connecticut as the worst-managed state in the nation in terms of its outstanding debt and unfunded pension liability relative to its GDP.  Needless to say, ranking as the worst state in the union in national publications is not going to attract or retain a lot of businesses, jobs or residents.  The underlying huge problems with taxes, debt and unfunded liabilities must be addressed before they provoke a crisis that will severely limit our options.  And if these highly visible state-level problems are not enough to make you wonder about how long you and your family should stay in Connecticut and about the future value of any property you own here, there is another big problem that hits us even closer to home – Hartford continues to pile more and more unfunded mandates on towns like Fairfield, driving our local property taxes higher and higher.

An unfunded mandate is a state law that requires a town to pay for something that it was not previously doing or to pay more for the services it wants to provide, in response to which it has only two options: either raise property taxes or cut other services, like patrolling neighborhoods, plowing roads or responding quickly to 911 calls.

According to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, a state-wide, bipartisan association of towns and cities, there are currently over 1,200 unfunded or partially funded mandates; information on all of them is available on its Web site.

Some of the most egregious examples of forcing Fairfield to pay more than it would otherwise have to pay are the following:

  •  “Prevailing Wage Rate” is a law that requires towns to pay inflated wages on construction projects over $400,000 for new work and over $100,000 for renovation projects even if there are reputable contractors who are willing to do the work for substantially less.
  • Minimum Budget Requirement” is a law, believe it or not, that says education budgets cannot be reduced even if enrollment declines, even if efficiencies are found, even if savings are achieved, even if there was a surplus the year before. Towns should make that decision, not Hartford.
  • Compulsory Binding Arbitration” is a law that requires Fairfield to accept the judgment of an arbitration panel when the town and its public employees can’t agree on the terms of a new contract, even though the members of that panel are not accountable to our tax payers; a town’s legislative body can reject an initial arbitration award, by a two-thirds vote, but then the award of the second arbitration panel is final and binding.
  • In-School Suspension” is a new law that requires Fairfield to find suitable space and to pay the substantial cost of hiring paraprofessionals or teachers to provide all-day supervision for any student who is suspended unless it is too dangerous to do so. Previously, a suspended students’ parent(s) or guardian(s) were responsible for supervision.

Ultimately, the problem with unfunded mandates is one of Transparency and Accountability.

In its ceaseless, relentless creation of more and more programs year after year, the state Assembly should not be allowed to shift the economic burden of what it is doing onto Connecticut’s towns.  If Hartford wants to create a new program or expand an existing one, then it should figure out how to pay for it with state revenues. Not doing so denies voters the transparency they need to evaluate whether their state representatives are serving them well, and to hold them accountable.

What can and should be done?

I believe we can solve this problem. Connecticut’s legislative leaders must:

1.  Review and eliminate or reform all existing unfunded state mandates;

2.  Ensure that estimates of any unfunded-mandates costs are accurate;

3.  Require a two-thirds majority in the Assembly to enact any material new unfunded mandate;

4.  Reform “Binding Arbitration” to give towns the right to reject any and all arbitration awards by a two-thirds vote of their legislative bodies;

5.  Eliminate “Prevailing Wage Rate” restrictions on municipal projects

6.  Reform the “Minimum Budget Requirement” to allow towns like Fairfield to decide on whether or not education spending should decline for reasons such as lower enrollment or efficiencies.

Any reform efforts will be much more productive if a majority of Connecticut voters decide that one-party rule for 36 of the past 40 years has not served our towns and state well.

Affordable Housing Reform

Housing regulations could change face of town

Connecticut Post, 2012: http://www.ctpost.com/opinion/article/Housing-regulations-could-change-face-of-town-3828563.php

All Fairfield home owners should be watching this issue very closely.

In Stratfield, a developer recently sought to circumvent our zoning regulations by invoking a 1989 state law that was designed to encourage the development of affordable housing. The developer wanted to subdivide his 10,000-square-foot site on Homeland Street, keeping an existing home on one half and building a second on the other half.

When this plan was denied by the Town Plan and Zoning Commission (TPZ) in March because current zoning laws require a minimum of 9,375 square feet for one home, he revised his application to include three housing units, one of which would be an accessory apartment over the garage of the second home. Under the provisions of state law “8-30g,” because the apartment would be classified as “affordable housing,” three housing units would be allowed on the property despite local zoning restrictions.

What may sound like a local dispute is quite obviously much more, so thank goodness for the groundswell of opposition from our Stratfield neighbors — more than 100 turned out at the public hearings, and more than 200 signed petitions in opposition. They understand that approving this proposal would set a precedent for the entire town of Fairfield that would allow developers to dictate how our town should be developed by allowing them to enter any neighborhood and change its character forever by simply including affordable housing in their plans.

Fortunately, the developer’s new application was rejected unanimously, primarily on the grounds that the TPZ had “not been presented with adequate information … to make a decision that is informed, proper and in accordance with the laws of the State of Connecticut.” It’s certainly likely this developer will try again. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, another developer has just threatened to propose a “so called” affordable housing development with many more units than the three he put forward to build on his Chatham Road site after his original plan was rejected unanimously by the TPZ.

Section 8-30g basically says that if less than 10 percent of a town’s total housing units are “affordable” (in the latest assessment, only 2.63 percent of Fairfield’s 21,648 housing units were deemed to be affordable), then multi-unit developments in which at least 30 percent of the units are affordable are exempt from local zoning regulations and can only be denied by local planning and zoning commissions based on “substantial public interests in health, safety or other matters which the commission may legally consider . . . that clearly outweigh the need for affordable housing . . . and cannot be protected by reasonable changes to the affordable housing development.” In plain English, this means that an 8-30g application cannot be denied simply because it is opposed by neighbors or would adversely impact property values, neighborhood character, aesthetics, traffic, and/or schools. Also, if any denial is challenged in court, the burden of proof regarding the legitimacy of the reasons shifts from the developer to the local commission, which basically means an expensive lawsuit that can be difficult to win.

The statutory definition of “affordable” is housing that costs no more than 30 percent of the income of people who earn 80 percent or less than the area median income or the state median income, whichever is lower. However, the only housing units that may be counted toward the 10 percent threshold of 8-30g are those which are built, acquired, or rented with government assistance specifically for low- and moderate-income people and those with formal deed restrictions that require the owners to sell or rent them at prices that are affordable to low- and moderate-income people. Thus, perversely, a town like Fairfield, in which more than 10 percent of the housing units may meet the law’s definition of “affordable,” is still vulnerable to 8-30g “coercion” if it does not have enough “statutory” affordable housing.

We should all be in favor of affordable housing for many reasons, including the opportunity it provides for older residents, those with limited or fixed incomes, local public- and private-sector employees, and young people working in entry-level jobs. At the same time, however, we should all be in favor of what has come to be called “Smart Growth,” which means community development under a thoughtful and comprehensive master plan, such as locating high-density housing near public transportation, on streets with adequate traffic capacity and parking facilities, and close to essential services, schools, and businesses, as opposed to plunking down high-density, multi-unit housing anywhere in town that a developer happens to have acquired a piece of land.

As a concerned citizen, I believe there is a solution. Legislative leaders must lead an effort to revise Section 8-30g to give communities like Fairfield: (a) a one-year moratorium from 8-30g for any town that wants to create a comprehensive Smart Growth Master Plan (SGMP); (b) the right to deny affordable housing applications that are not consistent with a town’s SGMP, and (c) credit towards the 10% objective for non-statutory housing units that are, in fact, affordable by the applicable standards but are not “deed restricted” or “publicly assisted.”

Meanwhile, I encourage all Fairfield citizens to become informed and engaged on this important issue and to let their local representatives know what they think.

Move along Fairfield voters – nothing to see here. Really?

With Election Day approaching, candidates for state office who are members of the party that’s controlled both houses of Connecticut’s legislature for 40 of the last 46 years are dearly hoping that a majority of voters will not notice the massive fiscal and competitive wreck they’ve caused for our state. What wreck?  Here, see for yourself:

  • Prices for single-family homes down 4.7% in CT in the second quarter, despite a 3% rise in home prices nationally; biggest decline for any state (Federal Housing Finance Agency).
  • Foreclosure filings increased 139% in CT in July from a year earlier, and the number of properties that are at least 90 days delinquent or in some stage of foreclosure increased more than 6% while most states registered declines (RealtyTrac).
  • CT’s combined state and local tax rate was among the three highest and was more than 20% above the national average (Tax Foundation).
  • CT is the worst state in which to retire (topretirements.com).
  • CT is one of the worst states (44/50) for doing business (CNBC).
  • Including unfunded liabilities, CT’s per-capita indebtedness is not only the highest in the nation, it is much higher than states that are widely perceived to have big problems, like NY, CA, MA, and IL, and higher even than NJ (Pew Center).
  • CT’s bond rating downgraded because, “it’s going to take a long time to undo the problems they’ve gotten themselves into” (Moody’s).
  • CT has the highest gasoline prices in the Continental U.S. (gasbuddy.com).
  • CT has the second highest cost of electricity in the Continental U.S. (U.S. Energy Information Administration).
  • CT’s unemployment rate in July rose to 9% from 8.5% (the largest jump for any month in the 36 years for which there are data), and CT has regained only about one-quarter of the jobs it lost in the recession (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and CBIA).
  • A $144 million budget deficit in fiscal 2012, despite the biggest tax increase in the State’s history, and even bigger deficits looming in the current and coming fiscal years.
  • To sum it all up, CT is the worst managed state in the nation, according to Barron’s.

Although it should be obvious that we are dealing here with a REALLY BIG WRECK, you would never guess anything is wrong from reading the web sites of candidates belonging to Connecticut’s majority party, all of which adopt a soothing, “business as usual” tone. Many of the web sites assert that the candidates are “driven to make government leaner, more efficient and more accountable to taxpayers.” However, behind this empty assertion there is no reference anywhere to the State’s increasingly precarious financial and competitive condition, let alone any alarm or sense of urgency about it.

We need common-sense solutions to the serious issues of Fiscal Responsibility, Unfunded Mandates and the abuse of the Affordable Housing statute.

Before it is too late and a crisis severely limits our options, we need more representatives in Hartford who will: Focus on the Critical Issues; Exercise Independent Judgment; and Provide Responsible Leadership.  “Critical Issues” means the very serious fiscal and competitive problems we must solve; it does not mean, for example, reducing our dependency on plastic bags.  “Independent Judgment” means that issues should be decided on their merits in the best interests of the State; it does not mean voting along party lines a vast majority of the time. “Responsible Leadership” means strong advocacy for spending cuts to address our near-term budget problems, and for strong private-sector economic growth that will allow us to create jobs and to fulfill our intermediate and long-term goals; it does not mean casting symbolic votes against the budget, complaining briefly and timidly about too much spending, and then reverting to “business as usual.”

Hopefully, a majority of voters will not be lulled again by candidates urging them to “move along” without taking a long hard look at our state’s difficult fiscal situation.  Hopefully Connecticut voters will decide on November 6th that it is time for a long overdue change in who controls our State.  With Responsible Leadership in Hartford, we can turn things around and put the State back on a positive course.