The real estate conveyance tax, improvements to the area's rail system and budget woes were among topics of discussion Monday morning at Norwalk City Hall during the South Western Regional Planning Agency's (SWRPA) annual legislative breakfast.
With state legislators and local leaders as voting members, SWRPA, one of 15 regional planning organizations in Connecticut, provides planning services to Darien and surrounding towns and cities as a replacement for county government.
High on the list of SWRPA's legislative priorities for 2011 are infrastructure improvements to the New Canaan and Danbury railroad branches. A $34 million investment would modernize the New Canaan Branch signals and provide for the construction of a segment of track that would allow bi-directional service, according to information from SWRPA. An investment of $290 million would support Danbury Branch electrification and infrastructure improvements between South Norwalk and Danbury, the agency reports.
"It [the $34 million and $290 million investments] will decrease traffic and free up parking spaces," said State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143). "It'll also have a positive effect on property values up and down the line."
To improve the status of Fairfield County's rails, SWRPA recommends local leaders seeking bond commission support for branch line projects.
Continuing down the list of legislative priorities for 2011, New Canaan First Selectman Jeb Walker voiced his support of --¦ policies that don't incur additional financial burden." He also expressed concern about the financial hardships of the state, which currently has more than 20 percent of its budget dedicated to shortfall.
"We cannot keep going like this," Walker said. "We cannot ask the towns to fund a bloated state budget."
Wilton First Selectman William Brennan said the real estate conveyance tax -- a tax that is one part state tax and one part municipal tax, and which requires a person who sells real property for $2,000 or more to pay a fee when he or she conveys the property to the buyer -- is beneficial to municipalities, particularly during a vicious economic climate that has nearly crippled many of Connecticut's towns.
"It's extremely important that [the municipal portion of the tax] be made permanent," Brennan said, in light of discussion over whether the tax will be eliminated. If such a measure were taken, "We would have no other choice but to raise property taxes," he said.
Since the municipal real estate tax was increased from .11 percent to .25 percent in 2003, more than $65 million of additional revenue has been directly deposited into the general funds of local municipalities, according to SWRPA. Without further legislative action, the .25 percent rate will expire at the end of fiscal year 2011.
"I am not aware of any sale in the town of Westport that has been hindered because of the conveyance tax," said Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff.
State Rep. Larry Cafero (R-142) said if the state provides flat funding to cities over the next two years it would reduce Connecticut's budget deficit by $1 billion.
"I think many of you would sign on that dotted line," Cafero said.
Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia agreed he would support such a measure -- but only with better parity in the way the state doles out money.
"We would accept flat funding if there was also true fairness with the aid," Moccia said.
Moccia pointed to other large cities, like Hartford, receiving north of $200 million in state aid each year, while Norwalk receives only about $14 million.
"It's a fact that the formula is out of whack," he said.
Moccia said the Education Cost Sharing formula, which determines the amount of state money each Connecticut town receives for educational purposes, needs equal scrutiny.
"Figuring out the ECS formula is second only to figuring out who shot JFK," Moccia said.
For information about SWRPA's legislative priorities, visit www.swrpa.org.