When the idea of a symposium on municipal financial distress first came up months ago, UConn Law Dean Timothy Fisher said it seemed timely. “But we had no idea how timely it would be,” he said as he opened the symposium on Sept. 15. The event attracted town and school officials from 18 communities around the state, including Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who was the keynote speaker.
Bringing together town leaders to tackle important issues, including the budget crisis faced by Connecticut cities and towns, is part of the law school's mission, Fisher said. Municipal leaders have been waiting anxiously for the state to pass a budget, and the administration of the city of Hartford has been considering bankruptcy if the state does not help it out of its financial difficulties.
The symposium featured three panels of experts on topics that included the future of municipal funding from federal and state sources, resources for cities and towns struggling with budget issues, and techniques for managing budget issues and crises. Advice was given on how to eliminate structural deficits, fund pension and health care obligations, and continue to provide services to the communities. It was presented by the law school and the law firms of Day Pitney and Alvarez & Marsal.
“This is a timely topic and an important one,” Bronin told the audience in the Reading Room in William F. Starr Hall. “Many distressed cities are distressed for different reasons.”
In Hartford, where about half the property is tax-exempt, the enormous financial burden cannot be solved by short-term budget measures, Bronin said. The long-term solution will have to including regional solutions that bring the cities and their surrounding suburbs together, he said.
“It’s about building a strong heart for an integrated region,” he said, adding that regionalization is politically difficult, “but it is not difficult in any other way.”
Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, who participated on one of the panels, said his organization offers policy and advocacy work as a resource to struggling communities.
“I think the more we create forums where we can educate cities and the greater public, we might be able to create policy changes,” DeLong said.
Michael Imber, of Alvarez and Marshal, who participated in two of the panels, said the problems facing municipalities in Connecticut “are systemic issues that are going to cause problems for years to come.”
Town leaders who attended the symposium said it was helpful, particularly in the current atmosphere where there is so much uncertainty about how much funding will be coming from the state.
Phillip Sengle, a selectman in Clinton, said the symposium helped him understand what resources are available to “help small towns that don’t have the staff.”
“We have to figure out how to pay for it,” Chester First Selectwoman Lauren Giston said. “Everyone is struggling how to pay for more with less.”