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A bill being considered by the state legislature could have a "devastating impact" on education funding in Cheshire, a message one Town official delivered to Hartford this month.
The bill aims to count prisoners as residents of the town in which they were last known to have lived, rather than residents of the town where the prison is located. In Cheshire's case, the prison off Jarvis Street adds around 2,500 "residents" to the local population. If the bill is passed and the prisoners were then counted as residents of other communities, state aid could be diminished by $2.8 million.
"We estimate that if (this bill) were enacted, Cheshire could realize a 30 percent drop in our Education Cost Sharing Grant, a loss of approximately $2.8 million," explained Town Council chairman Tim Slocum, who testified in Hartford last week. "Additionally, numerous other state formula grants that use wealth as a key element would be affected, further reducing revenue for Cheshire."
Raised Bill No. 6606, An Act Concerning The Determination Of The Residence Of Incarcerated Persons For Purposes Of Legislative Districting, was discussed on March 21 by the state's Judiciary Committee. No vote was taken.
Slocum, who read from a two page prepared statement, told the Committee that towns are supposed to be reimbursed by prisons in the form of Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) funding. While prescribed to be funded at 100 percent, Slocum informed the Committee that Cheshire will receive less than 55 percent for the coming fiscal year. The disparity in funding equates to a loss of about $1.9 million.
The prison sits on over 400 acres and is comprised of 45 different buildings.
To compensate for this loss in PILOT money, different grants were established to help fill the void. The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund Grant, instituted to bridge that gap, dropped from $3 million in 2008/2009 to $1.6 million the following year, Slocum told the Committee.
"The state prison has worked hard to be a good neighbor, but housing these facilities in Cheshire provides no significant economic benefit," he said.
He explained that the Town has spent $2 million in the last five years improving roads around the prison. Additionally, the prison pays for its water usage, buying into the Wastewater Treatment Plant for 20 percent of the available capacity. However, the prison has used around 31 percent of the capacity over the last 12 month. Despite the fact that the state pays for its actual usage, the flow puts wear and tear on the equipment, limits the possibility for development, and can push the Town over its permitted levels.
"Even with cuts in services, programs, and personnel, we have still been forced to consistently increase the taxes on our businesses and residents," Slocum said. "In the face of these decisions, a reduction in various revenue sources totaling approximately $2.8 million would be very destructive to the Town’s fiscal year 2011/2012 proposed budget, which already will require a tax increase just to maintain services."
While Slocum spoke passionately against the bill, others were in favor of the measure. Susan Pease, the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Central Connecticut State University, said she supported the bill because it would provide "critical steps towards greater electoral equality and fairness." Pease said Census Bureau data counts prisoners as residents of the town which houses the prison and, during the 2000 census, 20,000 prisoners were counted, which is almost an entire district. To be fair, the inmates should be counted in their home towns, so redistricting and representation can be equatable.
"We can end the practice of giving extra representation to the small number of people who live next to prisons," Pease explained. "We can ensure that every voice in this state is given the same chance to be heard in this chamber."
Delaware, Maryland, and New York changed their laws last year to count prisoners as residents of their last address.
"Connecticut has made great strides in the last 50 years towards putting the principles of one person, one vote into effect," Pease said. "I urge you to pass this legislation that would end prison-based gerrymandering in our state."
Slocum reflected earlier this week on his brief testimony in Hartford, the first such time he has spoken to the Committee. After noting that it "sure is a palace," he said he was able to speak second since he was an elected official. No one else from the Town or Board of Education was available to testify, so Slocum spoke on their behalf.
"Who knows where this goes and if it has legs. I heard it was the third time it's come up in some form or another, and I think they are really doing this for the cities. I wouldn't rule it out," Slocum said. "How would we ever replace (the loss in revenue)? There would be real serious consequences."