NAUGATUCK — State and local officials came together last week to open up a dialogue on a host of issues.
“My vision is just to open up the lines of communication with our state delegation,” Board of Finance Chairwoman Diane Scinto said.
Members of the finance board, Board of Mayor and Burgesses and the Board of Education met with state senators Joseph Crisco, D-Woodbridge, and Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, and state representatives Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, and David Labriola, R-Oxford, May 24 at the Board of Education offices.
The meeting, which was the first since the municipal election in November, touched on a variety of topics, including binding arbitration.
Binding arbitration is the process by which collective bargaining disputes between municipalities and unions are settled by three judges.
Deputy Mayor Robert Neth called binding arbitration the “white elephant in the room” and questioned the legislators on what actions they could take to help the borough.
“It’s the major killer of every municipality in Connecticut,” Neth said. “What can be done, whether it is a phase-in process or whatever, to try to curb or reduce the impact on municipalities going forward on binding arbitration?”
Labriola said legislators have been trying to make changes to binding arbitration for over 20 years.
“Even the slightest procedural change in the system would have a great impact. We tried to come at it different ways. Rosa and I have tried to propose bills. We can’t even get a hearing,” Labriola said.
Labriola said the problem stems from the state’s Labor Committee and the union bosses. He recommended that borough officials testify in Hartford about how binding arbitration is hurting Naugatuck.
“Both parties, Democrats and Republicans locally, should go up to Hartford and demand that we have a public hearing on the issue of binding arbitration reform,” Labriola said.
Concerns were also raised about a new state law, which takes effect in the coming fiscal year, which will cap the tax rate on motor vehicle taxes at 32 mills. The state has said it will reimburse the lost revenue for municipalities, like Naugatuck, with a mill rate higher than 32 mills.
“What I think we have fears of is the state, as it is going down the path of having significant deficits, it is not going to be able to reimburse us to the full amount of what our car taxes should have been,” Scinto said.
Crisco said the Senate has been supportive of making sure municipalities get the money they are owed.
“The president of the Senate, who is the leading officer of the Senate, has repeated himself saying he is committed to making sure that the car tax is granted to all the towns. I don’t see any breaking of that commitment and, as far as I’m concerned, I would never support that,” Crisco said.
Rebimbas said the House of Representatives is also working to ensure municipalities receive their money.
“To the best of my knowledge it is moving forward. There are a few towns that have been identified that, unfortunately, the funds may not be secured for. Naugatuck, to the best of my knowledge, is not on that list. So we are expected to be fully reimbursed,” Rebimbas said.
Mayor N. Warren ‘Pete’ Hess said discussing issues such as binding arbitration and unfunded government mandates is important, but change isn’t going to come quickly.
“I have little confidence that in the next two years something is going to come down from Hartford that’s going to help me as mayor. But there are things that can help us — three things: transportation, transportation, and transportation,” Hess said.
Hess said improvements to the Waterbury branch of the Metro North Railroad are crucial to Naugatuck. He pointed out that the state finalized funding for new signalization and sidings, and work is expected to be done by 2018.
“What’s missing from funding that we desperately need is the money to purchase the actual cars for the train line and apparently to provide shelter for the trains in Waterbury. That money has not been totally approved yet. That money is critical for the future,” Hess said.
Hartley said the branch line is important to the economy up and down the Naugatuck Valley. What is holding up implementation, however, is how much the train cars cost.
Hartley said the state is slowly switching to a newer train car, which costs a lot of money. The state purchases the cars on a long-term lease and, even though it has begun phasing out the old cars, is still paying them off.