Local officials sound off on passage of veto-proof state budget

Officials in southeastern Connecticut expressed relief on Thursday that a veto-proof budget has finally been passed, while still sifting through figures to get the full picture and considering future fiscal struggles.

The $41.3 billion two-year budget the General Assembly passed Thursday provides relatively stable funding for cities and towns, with a hospital tax hike, cigarette tax increase, additional fee on ridesharing services and 1 percent increase in teacher pay-in to pensions.

Norwich, New London and Groton will see the same Education Cost Sharing grants from the state this fiscal year as last, while all other area districts will see 5 percent cuts.

An executive order from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in effect, absent a state budget, flat-funded ECS grants for Norwich and New London but had all other local districts losing 50-100 percent of their funding this year. It had Groton losing $17.5 million.

"It's about time we have a budget," Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said. While the town fares all right in the state budget, she is concerned about nonmunicipal impact.

The Senate passed the budget by a 33-3 vote just before 2 a.m. on Thursday, while the House passed it 126-23 mid-day. The yes votes are enough to override a veto from Gov. Malloy if necessary.

The governor's director of communications, Kelly Donnelly, said it is incumbent on the administration to carefully review the nearly 900-page document.

"Unfortunately, our review has already uncovered egregious problems relating to the hospital tax that could put the state budget out of balance by over a billion dollars," she said in a statement. "Staff will continue to analyze the bill, weighing its merits and faults, so that the Governor can arrive at an informed and carefully considered decision regarding his support."

Thursday marked the 118th day without a budget.

Local legislators praise, condemn bipartisan budget

Rep. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, said he is "pleased that this bipartisan budget protects Avery Point," considering he expressed concern about the future of the University of Connecticut campus under the GOP budget the governor vetoed last month.

According to UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz, the GOP budget would've resulted in a $309 million biennial cut to UConn and UConn Health, while the cut in the new budget is $143 million.

Reitz said UConn is reviewing the budget to see if language elsewhere in the budget could result in deeper cuts.

Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said in a statement, "Passing a bipartisan budget that contains significant structural reforms sends an important message that we are taking the first vital step to heal and strengthen our state."

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said the budget "results in a great outcome for towns and cities" in her district.

She cited restored funding for Groton Public Schools and the Thames River Heritage Park water taxi, a new grant for being a military host town, and funding for a shellfish lab testing facility.

Local legislators who voted against the budget are state Reps. Chris Soto, D-New London; Mike France, R-Ledyard; and Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin.

Soto told The Day he felt the agreement involved taking money from poor people, citing cuts to Medicaid, reduced eligibility for the HUSKY Health program and an increase in the car tax cap. He preferred a previous proposal of a food and beverage tax that would have given municipalities another source of revenue.

Dubitsky, whose district includes part of Norwich, said he voted against the budget in part because lawmakers were given little time to review it, and because he objected to the increased taxes and spending.

"I think it's ridiculous we get this 880-page bill dumped in our desks at 10 at night, and we're asked to vote on it the next morning," Dubitsky said. "We were four months late in crafting a budget, why can't we wait two days?"

But he said he would be inclined to vote to override a gubernatorial veto if necessary because "the governor has shown he is incompetent when it comes to creating a budget."

Funds for school building projects

Groton schools Superintendent Michael Graner was effusive in his praise of Somers' work and said he is "just absolutely thrilled."

The budget lays out estimated grant commitments for school building projects: $42.8 million for the new middle school, $27.9 million for West Side Middle School and $36.7 million for Cutler Middle School.

West Side and Cutler will be renovated and turned into elementary schools, replacing Claude Chester and S.B. Butler elementary schools, after the new middle school opens.

The budget also includes estimated grants for building projects in New London, North Stonington and Ledyard.

Ledyard Town Council Chairwoman Linda Davis said she is "thrilled" about the building project funding, noting "there were a lot of naysayers saying we were crazy to go ahead with this project" without knowing for certain if the state would contribute money.

Regarding the ECS cut in the current fiscal year, she said, "It's not as horrible as we thought, but it's still $600,000. The relief is at least we know what we're working with. Now we can say, 'OK, we're getting this; where do we need to make additional reductions?'"

Stable state aid to towns

As an Alliance District, Norwich — like New London — is slated to receive its full ECS projected funding, as well as this year's anticipated $4 million state Alliance District grant.

The Alliance funding may be rolled into the ECS grant, making it look like an increase, Superintendent Abby Dolliver said. There may be changes in how the funding is allocated to the city, possibly requiring a City Council vote to turn it over to the school district.

The Norwich school board rejected calls in June by administrators to cut several teaching positions in the wake of city budget cuts, calling instead for a $200,000 cut to transportation fuel and other accounts not directly affecting classroom education.

Looking at the city overall, Comptroller Josh Pothier said Norwich could fall between $100,000 and $1.5 million short in state revenues from the figures projected in the city budget approved in June.

Not knowing the new motor vehicle tax cap, Norwich delayed issuing tax bills until this month and then sent them out for 32 mills. The new budget raised the cap to 39 mills, and Norwich likely will issue second motor vehicle tax bills for 7 mills in January to make up the difference.

New London residents were taxed at 37 mills, and Mayor Michael Passero said his administration will not propose sending out supplemental car tax bills.

The City Council on Monday passed a revised budget with cuts that raised taxes by 8.98 percent, higher than necessary if the state budget becomes law. The tax rate will drop to a 6.69 percent increase under the new state budget.

School district funding, in the form of ECS grant funds, will remain stable under the state budget and ease the concerns of those who had criticized City Council cuts to the school budget.

Preston Superintendent Roy Seitsinger credited town officials for not enacting major cuts based on earlier state budget proposals that had little chance of passing.

"Although the data we have has not been finalized, indications are that reductions in state aid are less than originally anticipated, which is encouraging," he said.

Similarly, Salem accounted for a $700,000 cut in state aid when crafting its 2017-18 budget, but it is slated to receive a cut of only about $150,000.

East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson said East Lyme will receive about a $435,000 cut, and the town already had anticipated some cuts to state aid.

"We are very pleased we are not going to have to send out a supplemental tax bill nor dip into our reserves," he said.

Lyme First Selectman Steven Mattson also said his town will be getting more ECS money than budgeted.

However, he added that the "warning signals are out on future budgets," as far as a requirement for towns to contribute to teachers' pensions and the removal of the car tax, which both would affect Lyme.

Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette, Kimberly Drelich, Amanda Hutchinson, Martha Shanahan and Greg Smith contributed to this report.

e.moser@theday.com

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