School backers vie with tax relief supporters at Norwich budget hearing

Norwich - The City Council heard more of a mix of comments at Monday's second budget public hearing, with several speakers supporting adding funding to the school budget to restore programs cut in recent years and others arguing residents cannot afford higher taxes.

City Manager Alan Bergren's proposed $118.4 million combined city government and school budget calls for a 1.5 percent increase in the school budget for a total of $71.6 million, but that would fall $572,000 short of the Board of Education's request.

The requested school budget included funding to restore full-day kindergarten, middle school instrumental music, foreign languages and full-time library media specialists.

Speakers supporting the school budget named those programs as valuable components of elementary and middle school education which are offered in surrounding towns that send students to the Norwich Free Academy. Mary Gabrielle Lipman, a 30-year Norwich teacher, said Norwich students enter NFA at a disadvantage.

But several residents urged the council to hold the line on spending.

Charles Clarke estimated his taxes could rise to $8,000 over the next few years given the annual increases in taxes and the declining grand list based on the recent revaluation.

Others said that while their property taxes might go down slightly with reduced values, their car taxes will skyrocket with the proposed 42 percent tax increase since those values did not drop with revaluation.

City officials learned last week that the city will receive an additional $320,000 in non-educational state grants in the revised state budget approved by the General Assembly. Prior to Monday's hearing, aldermen put off making adjustments to Bergren's proposed budget to await those final grant numbers. Alderman Mark Bettencourt said he is considering proposing additional funding to the school budget.

But resident Jennifer Kayser urged the council to use that money to reduce taxes rather than increase spending. With the drop in the city's tax base - a 26.8 percent reduction overall and 29.6 percent in real estate values - city officials should have proposed consolidations and budget cuts.

Board of Education members reminded the council that the budget does not propose new programs, but represents annual attempts to restore valuable programs other towns consider standard that Norwich had to drop in recent years due to budget cuts.

"When gas goes up, we have to pay that," school board member Jesshua Ballaro said. "When bread and milk go up, we have to pay that. When education goes up, we have to pay that."

Mayor Deberey Hinchey said the council is scheduled to make any final budget adjustments at the June 2 meeting and could vote on a final budget that night. By charter, the council must adopt a final budget by the second Monday in June.

c.bessette@theday.com

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