From the moment the recent recession reared its head, the phrase "It's a shame to let a good crisis go to waste" has been a theme in many quarters — nowhere more than the smart-growth quarter, where advocates have urged that this time of curtailed spending should be used to rein in policies that have promoted sprawl.
The state budget is the perfect place to begin, for that is where the cost of sprawl is embodied in the huge infrastructure expenditures at all levels of government. In 2009, the General Assembly passed a law, Public Act 09-230, "To define smart growth and require smart growth provisions of state, local and regional plans of conservation and development be consistent." Now would be the perfect time to use those definitions to guide policy decisions, especially in how we spend the state's money.
So how does Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's budget stack up on issues of smart growth? Pretty well, actually. There are quite a few commendable provisions, several disappointing areas and a couple of proposals that take us in exactly the wrong direction. As legislators take up the budgeting task, we can hope that they build on this very good start, strengthen where called for and make a few needed corrections.
The governor's budget proposes several welcome inducements for working together, which not only saves money but also can prevent the kind of bad land-use decisions that come from towns competing for grand list growth. It contains $600,000 in each year to give incentives to regional planning agencies to consolidate. It provides for some funding to study ways to regionalize school transportation services and to develop a common school calendar. By transferring the vocational/technical schools to a lower level, it creates the potential for regional cooperation, but only if the schools are run by regional committees rather than local school boards.
Affordable housing ($50 million per year) and supportive housing ($30 million in fiscal 2012) receive a much-needed boost in this budget, although we must be sure it is built where infrastructure such as roads and sewers already exist. Capital funding ($25 million) for brownfield remediation can help to revitalize cities while preventing sprawl into greenfields. The emphasis on "fix it first" rather than new road constuction, and on bus and rail maintenance signal a smart turn in state transportation policy. The budget also provides more than a half-billion dollars during the biennium for grants and loans to upgrade sewer infrastucture.
Disappointingly, there are two things missing from Mr. Malloy's budget. First, there is no specific funding for the HomeConnecticut program, which gives incentives to towns to plan for affordable housing. This program, designed by affordable housing advocates, has shown real promise in getting towns to step up to creating affordable housing.
It is disappointing as well that there is not a specific financial commitment to the tenets of the 2009 smart-growth law to guide state actions and expenditures according to the act's definitition of smart growth.
Smart-growth advocates have long urged policy-makers to find ways that towns can increase local revenue and get the property tax monkey off their backs. In the current system of overdependence on the property tax, towns cannot afford to turn down a big-box store or another strip mall, no matter how little sense it makes to long-term land-use planning. The governor's budget proposes returning .10 percent of the sales tax to the towns where it is generated, along with increased hotel and rental car taxes. Although we should ordinarily welcome the idea of increased local revenue, municipalities will have the same incentive as before to accept commercial development without regard to its effect beyond their borders.
An effort to allocate at least part of this new revenue to the region would go a long way to correct this problem. In another tax twist, allowing towns to tax commercial motor vehicles as personal property would very likely create the incentive for companies who own these vehicles to locate them in low-tax towns and out of the cities, whose tax bases are already hurting. Additionally, formulas that send revenue back to towns heavy with retail, hotel and car rental locations, rather than to cities, can further exacerbate sprawl.
We should all celebrate the fact that the governor has brought forward a budget that balances cuts and revenue increases, a budget that strives to put us back on a secure financial footing. With some tweaking, the legislature can make it an even better budget to carry us forward into a better planned, smarter, more sustainable future.
Susan Merrow is the chairwoman of 1,000 Friends of Connecticut.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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