What can state officials do to help local businesses?

That was the topic of discussion Tuesday afternoon at Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce forum that featured local state Reps. Gail Lavielle, R-143, and Jonathan Steinberg, D-136. The event took place in the Lucille Lortel White Barn Center at the Westport Country Playhouse. About a dozen people attended.

Job creation was one of the topics, with Lavielle agreeing the biggest obstacle to generating more jobs in the state is the cost of doing business here. Factors in that cost include taxes, energy costs and regulations. She said a recent survey found Connecticut is one of the "10 most unattractive states due to taxes."

Attracting new business is also tricky because, she said, the state doesn't have a "welcoming attitude."

She said business owners in the state worry about their long-range plans, such as buying equipment or hiring new employees.

Steinberg said the state needs to "make sure future employees are trained for the jobs that are available."

The state also needs to keep educated young people from leaving because they can't find affordable housing.

"We need to make housing a focus," he added. "We have to change over our inner cities."

But above all, they said, making business owners aware of what's available to them should be a top priority.

On hand was Christopher Caruso of the state Department of Labor, who spoke about the state's "Step Up" program available to employers of any size business.

He said seminars have already been held in Milford, Enfield and Groton this year and in the Naugatuck Valley area last year.

Employers can learn about tax credits, wage subsidies and training programs as well as recruitment services, new health-care guidelines and a variety of other services. "When we have these seminars, we learn that the business owner who is struggling doesn't know this program even exists," Caruso said.

He suggested that the Westport chamber sponsor a presentation on the program here.

The legislators also addressed concerns raised about Metro-North Railroad, especially following the recent shutdown of rail service on the New Haven Line from Stamford to Grand Central. The shutdown was caused by the failure of a Consolidated Edison substation in Mount Vernon, N.Y., that disrupted the commute of thousands of rail passengers for days.

Lavielle said that what was most disturbing was that it wasn't caused by a natural disaster, but by planned test by Con Ed that went awry even though the company knew a power line would be taken out of service.

"I guess it wasn't a well-planned event," said Steinberg, evoking laughter from the audience.

And getting Con Ed and Metro-North to admit accountability -- and cover the cost of lost tickets -- isn't easy since both disagreed over who was responsible during a recent hearing in Bridgeport, Lavielle said.

Lisa Parelli Gray, the chamber president, asked what can be done to "hold Metro-North's feet to the fire." Not much, said Lavielle and Steinberg.

That's because Metro-North has had a contract with the state Department of Transportation for the past 60 years and the state "can't exercise a whole lot of authority" over the rail company because of it, they said.