Norwich City Council debates, approves controversial budget changes

Norwich – Over Mayor Deberey Hinchey's objections, City Council Republicans approved a last-minute budget amendment Monday increasing the 2017-18 school budget by 1 percent, half of the increase she requested. 

The 5-2 party-line vote with the five council Republicans supporting the 1 percent increase, started a contentious final budget meeting Monday that featured several last-minute resolutions to adjust the budget at the start of the meeting.

After nearly three hours of debate and changes, the council approved a final budget totaling $123.8 million combined city and school budget. The tax rate was approved at 40.52 mills citywide, a 0.7 mill decrease from this year, 8.22 mills in the central city paid fire district, an increase of 0.38 mills, and 0.15 mills in the five volunteer fire districts, a decrease of 0.3 mills.

Late Monday, the council also approved a resolution proposed by the city administration that would postpone the elimination of several positions until September to allow time to learn about state revenues when the state legislature finalizes its budget.

One measure sponsored by Republican Council President Pro Tempore Peter Nystrom and Republican Alderwomen Stacy Gould and Joanne Philbrick called for cutting $63,000 from the Otis Library budget to save a city Public Works Department engineering position cut on May 1. After lengthy and heated debate, the council approved the Otis Library cut by the same party-line vote.

Also on May 1, the council voted 5-2 along party lines to give no increase to the school budget. Residents objected to the cut at a budget hearing, and on June 5 Hinchey proposed raising the school budget by a 2 percent, $1.5 million increase. The council tabled her resolution to Monday, meaning the amendment to 1 percent was voted on prior to public comment.

Hinchey voiced outrage at the school budget amendment raised by Nystrom, saying she had asked council members, including Gould who attended last week's agenda-setting meeting, to place any major proposed budget changes on the agenda in advance. Hinchey called it “totally unfair” to the public.

The council approved the 1 percent school budget increase Monday without comment. Nystrom, Gould, Philbrick and Republicans William Nash and Gerald Martin voted in favor.

“Are you building a city that your children would want to live in?” school board Chairman Aaron “Al” Daniels said to the council without addressing a specific resolution.

Otis Library Executive Director Robert Farwell said he learned Monday morning that Republicans planned to cut $63,000 from the library budget.

Farwell angrily objected and called it “a stealth attack” on the library. A year ago in April, Otis received the National Medal for Library and Museum Service from first lady Michelle Obama in a White House ceremony. This past winter, Otis was one of 19 libraries across the country to host a traveling Smithsonian exhibit on human origins that featured a week of programs with national experts.

“This institution for the past two years has brought nothing but accolades to the city of Norwich, and the reward both times has been budget cuts,” Farwell said. “… I am beyond words and I think it's shameful.”

The five council Republicans regularly meet in closed-door sessions on weekends to formulate council strategy. Following strong criticism voiced by library and school supporters during Monday's public comment session, Nystrom asked for a 15-minute recess to hold a closed-door party caucus to discuss the budget resolutions again.

Republican Alderman William Nash argued passionately that aldermen were trying to address difficult budget issues to cut property taxes that are approaching 50 mills for residents in the central city paid fire district. Nash said he is among the city taxpayers struggling to keep their houses. Nash objected to criticism that the council was making last-minute cuts in secret. Nash said the council faced a city charter budget deadline Monday and could not wait for a future meeting.

Nystrom echoed that sentiment and said the council was asking all entities to share in the spending cuts to reduce taxes. He said Farwell should have known additional budget cuts were coming, because Republicans announced that they were seeking additional cuts to city spending in general three months ago.

Hinchey had proposed saving the engineering position by cutting $87,000 from the Norwich Community Development Corp. The council voted 5-2 along party lines to defeat her resolution, which had drawn strong criticism from NCDC officials and several business leaders during public comment.

Nystrom called Hinchey's resolution a “last-minute” measure of its own and strongly objected to cutting NCDC's budget. Nystrom praised NCDC for its work to improve the grand list, work the city does not have the staffing to do, Nystrom said.

Philbrick said the council is “sorely divided” and that personalities are “getting in the way” of council business.

c.bessette@theday.com

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