New London passes budget with tax hike and support for schools

New London — The City Council on Wednesday passed a combined $90.05 million budget for fiscal year 2017-18, eliciting groans from those hoping to avoid a tax hike and applause from school advocates concerned about reductions in education spending.

There is already a promise of a petition drive from residents in an attempt to force a referendum and reduce the more than 9 percent increase in the city’s tax rate.

The mill rate under the new budget will increase from 40.46 mills to 44.26 mills. Taxes for a home assessed at $100,000 will increase $380 a year, from $4,046 to $4,426.

Wednesday’s meeting was attended by dozens of school supporters who had feared the council would look to reduce school funding. The Board of Finance earlier in May had tried to reduce the $41.7 million school spending plan by $1 million but the move was rejected by the council because of a technicality in the finance board’s vote.

The $41.7 million in education spending, passed unanimously by the council on Wednesday, is actually a 1.71 percent decrease over last year’s request but required more from taxpayers because of a loss in state educational cost sharing funds to the city. The general fund portion of the school budget is the combination of educational cost sharing funds from the state and a portion funded by taxpayers.

The funding request anticipates $21.3 million in ECS funds and $20.4 million from the city. The request from taxpayers is a $1 million, or 5 percent, increase over last year’s $19.4 million figure.

The $48.3 million general government budget represents a 5.2 percent increase over the current budget after a $750,000 cut by the finance board.

Several people prior to Wednesday’s vote called for a halt to yearly tax increases.

“The budgets keep going up. The mill rate keeps going up. It’s unsustainable,” Dan McSparran said. “You’re driving the people that have the income out of the city. Most people if they could sell their houses would leave. You’ve created a monster that you can’t sell your house.”

Republican Town Committee member Tim Ryan said the council had left proposed cuts on the table and questioned why $2 million in overtime costs were left mostly untouched.

“Looking forward, it is clear we need a new financial strategy for New London,” Ryan said. “One that includes a renewed push for combining of Board of Education and city resources where applicable.”

Others called on the city to show its dedication to the school system in light of a budget passed last year that fell short of expectations, or increases for the developing all-magnet school district.

School supporter James Burke told the council, “I like to pay taxes.”

“My family is proud to pay taxes to the city in New London as a message to our community, to the state of Connecticut and to our nation that here in New London all children matter. Here in New London every child is entitled to a quality education,” he said.

Mayor Michael Passero has called for reform at the state level in light of decreases in state revenues that have shifted the tax burden to municipalities. He said the budget that passed was conservative when it comes to state revenue figures and said there are still more “pitfalls” than “windfalls” that could impact the city when the state passes its budget.

The council passed the general government budget with a 5 to 2 vote, with Councilor John Satti and Council President Anthony Nolan voting against it. Satti continually has asked for deeper reductions.

Nolan said there was still room for “maneuvering” in the budget and that overtime costs need to be addressed, perhaps by more hirings. “The overtime budgets — we continue to have that year after year and nothing seems to be done about it,” he said.

Other councilors have said that in light of fixed cost increases like insurance, debt service and personnel, any further reductions would cost residents services.

“I can’t really support a budget that will underfund the city and leave it in harm’s way,” Councilor Erica Richardson, chairwoman of the council’s Finance Committee, said prior to the vote.

“With increased expenses and declining revenues ... I understand taxpayers do not want to see an increase like that but the alternative is bankruptcy,” she said.

g.smith@theday.com

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