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Municipalities Examine What State Budget Proposal Brings Home

Municipalities Examine What State Budget Proposal Brings Home

New London Day, February 7,  2020

By Claire Bessette

Local municipal leaders in general found few surprises in the mid-year budget adjustments released Wednesday by Gov. Ned Lamont, with the three largest cities expecting increases in state aid and other towns seeing slight changes or stable grant packages.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, the statewide municipal advocacy agency, is analyzing the details of the mid-term state budget released Wednesday but issued a statement commending Lamont for maintaining state aid commitments to cities and towns.

“The proposed budget provides predictability to those counting on it most — city and town leaders and property tax-paying families and businesses,” CCM officials said in a written statement. “It is crucial that towns and cities continue to have a seat at the table with the governor and state legislators this session to ensure adequate levels of state aid for towns, fight against unfunded state mandates, and encourage regional service sharing.”

New London, Groton and Norwich all would see increases in overall state grant totals, mostly attributed to increases in education grants.

The governor’s proposal for fiscal year 2020-21 is on par with earlier projections for New London and provides what Mayor Michael Passero said was some “fiscal stability.”

New London's grant total would increase from $37.3 million this year to $38.4 million, next year, including a $1.09 million bump in Educational Cost Sharing grant to $28.6 million. Passero called the increase needed and appreciated, although it's $140,131 less than what had been projected last year.

The city will continue to get $311,720 in Local Capital Improvements Program funds, $1.6 million from the Pequot-Mohegan grant and $5 million in payments in lieu of taxes for tax-exempt properties.

“There’s not a great deal of change. It’s comforting to know the governor’s biennial budget appears to be holding up and there is a degree of fiscal stability there,” Passero said. “There’s a lot to be said about the fiscal stability this is showing us. I don’t expect to have to make big sacrifices like we’ve had (under past administrations).”

Groton Town Manager John Burt said the governor’s proposed budget looks positive for his town, with the total aid proposed to increase by $301,294 to $30,146,520 in 2020-21.

“Seeing the budget being proposed by Gov. Lamont is a lot better than the cuts the town was facing from the state a couple years ago,” Burt said. “Any additional funding from the state helps to keep our local property taxes lower.”

Groton’s ECS grant held steady at about $25 million, due to its status as an Alliance District, Superintendent Michael Graner said. The ECS grant provides just about a third of the town's school budget.

“The huge factor for Groton is that the Education Cost Sharing grant will not be reduced as long as we’re an Alliance District,” Graner said.

Alliance District funds must be used for specific state-approved school district improvements. Graner said the school district has submitted a plan to the state for this year’s $600,000 Alliance District grant and for the new proposed $300,000 grant for next year for items that include a social worker, additional books, tutors and instructional technology.

Norwich, also an Alliance District along with New London, would see an overall increase of $1,239,760 in state aid, nearly all attributed to the $1.22 million increase in the ECS grant.

The central city paid fire district is expected to receive $702,992 in reimbursement for motor vehicle property taxes, because the tax rate in the district exceeds the state motor vehicle tax cap. The city received $820,000 in the motor vehicle grant this year, city Comptroller Josh Pothier said. He said the drop next year could be the result of an increase in the grand list tax base.

“From what I can see so far, there aren’t any major changes in Gov. Lamont’s proposed budget for Norwich,” Pothier said. “CCM is in the process of going through the budget and associated bills as they become available. We may not have a complete picture until early next week.”

While most municipal aid grants remained stable, some local towns saw slight changes in their ECS grants for next year. Towns losing some ECS money include Ledyard, with a nearly $110,000 decrease; East Lyme, a $183,365 decrease; North Stonington, a $75,212 decrease, and Stonington a $115,427 drop. Montville is slated to receive an additional $88,382 in ECS money. 

Some changes for towns back to top

Preston would lose $36,525 in ECS and another $3,273 in adult education grant funds. First Selectwoman Sandra Allyn-Gauthier said no other changes are proposed in the town's grants.

“No one likes to hear that the amount that they are receiving is down,” Allyn-Gauthier said, “and we are researching with (the state Office of Policy and Management) what the criteria and formula is for ECS for 2021 to determine why we have been negatively impacted.”

She said Preston and all members of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments have been lobbying local state legislators for stability and predictability in state funding and will continue to do that.

All cities and towns also remain hopeful but anxious that the state will pass the long-overdue 2019 bonding package that includes some $60 million in state grants for municipalities, including the Town Aid Road funds, Local Capital Improvements grants and Municipal Revenue Sharing grants.

The package has been held up as legislators and the Lamont administration have debated over the prospect of adding tolls to some state highways and bridges. Most Bond Commission meetings since last summer have been canceled, as no agreement on a transportation plan has been reached.

For Preston, that also has meant a delay in the town’s request for a $7 million state grant to finish the cleanup of the former Norwich Hospital property so that the town can turn over ownership to Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment.

State Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, said the Lamont administration should separate the two issues and allow the legislature to vote on the municipal aid funding. First payments to the towns were supposed to have been made in September, and a second payment at the beginning of March.

“As long as it’s linked to tolls, it will be held up,” France said of the municipal grants. “I hope the governor will separate the two issues. Unless the governor decides to separate the two issues, I’m fearful the bonding bill will still be held up.”

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, said the state bond package is in the works and state officials have filed the package, with all the municipal grants and Preston’s request for the $7 million. She said there is no date yet for the Bond Commission meeting, as there is no date yet for the legislature to vote on the package.

“It’s important that we get it done,” Osten said.