MONTPELIER — Municipal leaders from across the state convened in Killington this week to fine tune a legislative agenda that will focus on public safety, transportation, education funding and other key issues facing towns and cities.
As a funding squeeze at the state and federal levels pinches government programs, municipalities have faced increased demand for resources locally. From local police departments dealing with the street-level effects of offender release programs to town road crews trying to make up for diminished transportation revenue, decisions made in Montpelier directly affect municipal governments, says Karen Horn, director of public policy for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
“Shifting costs and obligations from state to local governments is not acceptable,” reads the preamble to the league’s list of legislative priorities. “Given the extended recession and pressures on both municipal and state finances, local government must be included in any discussion that reassesses the functions of government.”
At the Killington Grand Resort Hotel, hundreds of representatives from local governments gathered to discuss, among other things, legislative priorities for the 2014 session. Rutland Mayor Chris Louras, a VLCT board member who heads the public safety subcommittee, said substance abuse and the crimes committed by addicts have drained municipal police resources.
Efforts by the state to reduce corrections spending by releasing offenders into community supervision, or enacting policies designed to ensure offenders don’t await their trials from jail, according to Louras, have had effects in Rutland and elsewhere.
“No one watches the actions or holds accountable the individuals who are out pretrial on bail, and in ever increasing numbers, due to substance abuse problems, they come back out and they need to feed their habit and they’re going to break another law,” Louras said. “And so the state either needs to keep the individuals locked up if they can’t meet bail or adhere to conditions, or we need to figure out some new way to monitor these individuals.”
And without a transportation-specific revenue mechanism to raise money locally, Horn said, municipalities are largely at the mercy of the state to fund road repairs. As gas tax revenue declines, she said, towns and cities are often left holding the bag.
She said the increase in the gas tax passed earlier this year in Montpelier won’t provide a long-term solution and that lawmakers need to find ways to close the gap between the cost of infrastructure repair and the money available to pay for it.
“The state transportation fund needs additional sources of revenue, or needs to rethink revenue generation, because people are driving less, and there are alternative vehicles on roads now,” Horn said of the failings of the state’s reliance on the gas tax.
As education costs eat up a growing portion of local property tax capacity, Horn said towns and cities are eager to see lawmakers revamp the school funding system. The VLCT board had considered forming a study committee of municipal officials but decided against it Wednesday.
“People sort of felt like we’d already been around the mulberry bush on that and that it was time to let someone else take the lead,” Horn said.
Horn said the issue nonetheless demands urgent attention.
“There’s tremendous frustration among local officials around the education funding system,” Horn said. “It’s 75 to 80 percent of every local property tax bill that goes to education funding, which means an ever decreasing piece of property tax for municipal functions of government.”
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