Shelton legislators tackle state spending: 'We have a spending addiction'

Shelton’s three state legislators talked about state spending, transportation, special education costs, health care expenses, and other subjects during a recent forum sponsored by the Shelton Voters Network (SVN).

The level of state spending was a focus of many comments during the session, promoted by organizers as “a legislative update.” It was held at the Plumb Memorial Library.

“We have a spending addiction,” said state Sen. Kevin Kelly. “That’s our problem.”

State Rep. Jason Perillo said the more money the state takes in, from the enactment of the state income tax to more recent increases in sales and gas taxes, the more ways the state’s “government class” finds to spend it.

“You feed the beast,” Perillo said of higher taxes.

Joined by state Rep. Ben McGorty, the three Republican lawmakers made opening statements and answered about 20 audience questions. Perillo and McGorty live in Shelton. Kelly lives in Stratford, but his district includes all of Shelton.

'You learn a lot'

McGorty, first elected in a special election last summer, said the past year has been a chance to find out how the legislature works. “You learn a lot,” he said.

The nonpartisan SVN, an affiliate of the League of Woman Voters, encourages citizen engagement.

Erica Schwartz, an SVN member who facilitated the forum, said the organization works to help people be more informed and involved in the community.

Tolls and transportation

When legislators were asked about highway tolls, Kelly noted the tolls were eliminated due to a horrific accident on Interstate 95 in his hometown.

Kelly said he strongly opposes reinstating the tolls, and pointed out revenue meant for the state’s special transportation fund now is routinely used for non-transportation purposes. Tolls, he said, would simply be another way for state officials “to get their hands in your pocket.”

Kelly said Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wants to spend money building new projects — such as a nine-mile dedicated bus line route — rather than upgrading the transportation infrastructure that already exists.

Perillo agreed, especially when it comes to trains. He said when he and McGorty took a train ride, a hole in the rail car was patched with duct tape. “Let’s fix what we have,” he said.

McGorty said some existing tracks in and out of Manhattan to Connecticut aren’t even operational.

Special education costs

On the impact of rising special education costs for local school districts, Perillo said any effort to change state requirements on what services must be provided brings “pushback” from parents of children receiving the services.

“It’s a constant battle,” with both sides feeling strongly, so there’s “not a lot of progress,” Perillo said.

Kelly said how much a community wants to spend on education is a local issue.

Moving Shelton City Hall

On a local issue, both Perillo and McGorty said they support moving Shelton City Hall to a new downtown location, an idea favored by Mayor Mark Lauretti.

Perillo called the current City Hall, a former school, “woefully ancient.” He and McGorty both said it could be sold.

Perillo favors first working with a private developer to encourage revenue-generating buildings in the two-block downtown area now being studied, then pursuing a project such as a new City Hall on the Coram Avenue side of that area.

McGorty said many city halls are on main commercial roads, which provides an economic boost to nearby businesses. “We’re set up on that hill,” he said, noting a new location in the two-block area “could put City Hall in the middle of everything.”

Other topics

On another issue with local implications, the legislators said they would support expanding winery hours to match those of liquor stores. “No problem with that at all,” McGorty said.

Perillo said he also backs the idea, noting a bill to do this had been approved by one of the legislature’s committees.

Kelly said a related bill is under consideration to allow farmers markets around the state to sell craft beer.

Shelton is home to the Jones Winery, which includes a tasting room.

On the closed Wooster Street rail crossing, which some claim is negatively impacting redevelopment efforts on Canal Street, Perillo said federal laws give tremendous powers to private railroads.

The Housatonic Railroad “has absolute control over it,” he said of the back-and-forth between city officials and railroad representatives on what needs to be done to reopen the crossing.