Norwich cuts go dangerously deep

The Norwich City Council is confronting a dilemma familiar to many urban communities as it struggles to pay for city services and education, while trying not to overburden home owners, many already struggling to pay property taxes on fixed incomes or with paychecks shrunken by inflation and a weak economy.

In trying to hold down taxes, however, it appears the council may be going too far, reducing city services and shredding the safety net so severely that it could send the city on a downward spiral that will reduce quality of life and inhibit the growth of the tax base, making matters worse.

The council is trying to find $2 million in savings to reduce the proposed tax increase to roughly 2 percent, a $60 increase for a home assessed at $130,000. City Manager Alan Bregren proposed a 5 percent tax hike in his $116.5 million spending plan.

Taxpayer angst and the desire of the council to minimize any tax hike are understandable. Norwich property owners saw the tax rate increase 7 percent a year ago. But the cuts are extreme and restoration of at least some of the funding appears in order. The approval of a state budget this week will give the administration the opportunity to take one more look at state revenue estimates. The legislature restored most of the municipal aid that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had stripped away in his proposed spending package.

With more than $1 million in labor cuts, the council is proposing eliminating positions in Human Services, merging the senior center and recreation positions, eliminating the position of emergency management director and a blight enforcement inspector, to name a few. The additional cuts would also leave several vacant police positions unfilled.

While labor reductions appear unavoidable, a few of these proposals appear to reach the point of diminishing return. In a city with an old housing stock, and with many properties owned by absentee landlords, Norwich officials cannot afford to ignore blight. Easing up on inspections will almost certainly lead to more properties falling into disrepair and a lowering of home values.

The city deserves credit for maintaining a vibrant Human Services Department when many cities - see New London - have become wholly dependent on the state for social services. It is tough to measure this investment by Norwich, but there is no question that interventions by the department have helped many people on the margins avoid falling into economic crises and becoming a more costly burden on government. The department has been aggressive in attracting grants. Given fiscal realities, however, it may be a question of how deep the job cuts go, rather than avoiding them altogether.

In a town as large as Norwich, 40,500, and given its substantial senior citizens population - 33 percent of inhabitants are 62 or older - the proposal to consolidate the senior center and recreation director positions appears unreasonable.

The cuts inflicted on the public school system are particularly troubling. The council has so far made no move to alter the the manager's recommendation to flat fund education. That is in effect a budget cut for grades kindergarten through eighth, run by the public school system, because it must absorb a $1.5 million tuition increase imposed by Norwich Free Academy. The academy serves as the city's high school, but is operated by an independent, non-elected board.

The flat funding, combined with tuition hike, could lead to elimination of 20 teaching positions and curtailment of other programs. Allowing educational quality to degrade is no way to grow a city.

And growth is the fundamental problem. A sluggish economy has inhibited the city's efforts to attract new businesses to its expansive, but aging business park. Attempts to revitalize the downtown district remain largely stalled, despite incentive programs approved by city voters to attract new shops and offices.

At some point Norwich has to grow its way to fiscal health by expanding the tax base. The community is seeing the alternative and it's not pretty.

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