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State Senate leader hears eastern Connecticut budget concerns

Norwich — With ballooning shortfalls in both the current-year state budget and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed new two-year budget, 10 representatives from Norwich and regional agencies pleaded with the Senate Appropriations Committee chairwoman Wednesday that eastern Connecticut not bear more than its share of the pending cuts.

State Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, Senate co-chairwoman of the General Assembly Appropriations Committee, was invited by state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, to hear the region’s budget concerns at a town hall-style meeting at Norwich City Hall on Tuesday.

Bye’s meeting came hours after Malloy announced another $13.7 million in current-year budget rescissions and state Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo announced that the current-year deficit stood at about $172 million. Also Wednesday, the House of Representatives Democratic caucus spent much of the day behind closed doors reviewing Malloy’s proposed $40 billion biennial budget — with its own projected $1.2 billion in deficits per year.

Under those scenarios, Acting Norwich City Manager John Bilda asked bluntly how likely it is that the state legislature will be able to retain Malloy’s proposal to retain municipal grants at the current levels. Bilda will present his proposed city budget to the City Council on Monday using Malloy’s projections.

“We’re not really promising anyone anything right now,” Bye responded.

She defended Malloy’s policy not to cut municipal aid. She said Malloy has taken the criticism for the state shortfall, while other states have shifted the burden to local governments, where local leaders hear the complaints from taxpayers.

Bye said the Appropriations Committee is expected to complete its budget deliberations by the end of April, giving cities and towns a little warning before they need to finalize local budgets.

While Malloy’s budget might spare cities and towns, other regional human services and tourism agencies have not been so lucky. Deborah Monahan, executive director of the Thames Valley Council for Community Action, said elimination of the $3.4 million statewide Human Services Infrastructure budget will hit eastern Connecticut hard.

Monahan said TVCCA would lose $450,000 for seven case manager positions to help low-income families apply for services ranging from energy assistance to job training and income tax filing assistance. Cuts to Norwich Human Services staff last year forced that agency to eliminate income tax assistance. TVCCA would have to do the same regionwide with the pending cut, Monahan said.

Osten told Bye TVCCA is critical, because many small eastern Connecticut towns can’t afford local human services departments, relying on the regional agency to assist their low-income families.

Jennifer Granger of United Community and Family Services said another proposal in Malloy’s budget would reduce the eligible income for state Husky health coverage from 200 percent of poverty rate to 138 percent, effectively eliminating the service for 1,000 families in UCFS’ region.

Granger said UCFS would have to charge sliding scale fees and anticipates losing $500,000 in the proposed cut.

Bye said in both cases, legislative leaders are aware of the impacts of the cuts and have heard from advocates urging the funding be restored. “We’re trying our best,” she said.

Robert Mills, president of the Norwich Community Development Corp., told Bye that the economic recovery is lagging way behind in eastern Connecticut — with casino job cuts burdening local towns, human services and businesses. The casinos brought thousands of workers to the region. Mills said the people have remained while their jobs have disappeared.

He said the high cost of doing business in Connecticut and high property taxes make it difficult to recruit new businesses from other states, so his agency and other regional economic development agencies are working hard to retain current businesses.

“The big thing we have going is tourism,” Mills said.

In that realm, eastern Connecticut would bear a disproportionate cut in Malloy’s budget proposal, said Wendy Bury, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition. Bury said Malloy proposed cutting 20 percent of the state Department of Economic and Community Development budget, with 88 percent of that cut coming from arts, culture and tourism. She said the cuts affected nine regional agencies, but the southeastern coalition would bear one-fifth of the total cut.

A dozen partner entities would see funding eliminated, including Mystic Aquarium, she said, while only the financially strapped replica 19th century schooner Amistad would retain its state funding.

Bye said some concern was expressed at the state level that the regional tourism district funding was being spent mostly on staffing rather than advertising or brochures. Mills responded that with modern technology, there is less need for printed material, while having staff to create online tourism maps, apps and websites is critical.

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