Balancing taxes, education in New London and Norwich

In both New London and Norwich, budget proposals have emerged from city hall that would use growing tax bases to avoid tax increases, but which would leave boards of education in the respective cities far less funding than they say is necessary. Ignoring the stated needs of their public schools could come at its own cost for the two communities.

In New London, the school board has sought to increase spending by 3.1 percent, bringing its budget to $72.4 million, roughly two-thirds of which is covered by state and federal funds. Mayor Michael Passero is recommending a city budget that would cut the education budget 1.2 percent.

How can this be when Passero points to his recommended 1.05 percent increase in general fund expenditures for education? The explanation is that the school board is projecting a $1.28 million drop in outside grants, which out strips the $452,880 in increased education operating expenses coming from the general fund — the 1.05 percent increase the mayor references.

Because of eroding state and federal funding, the school board had asked for an 8 percent increase coming from the city’s general fund, which includes a pass through of state aid, to support its 3.1 percent increase in school spending. Then it gets more complicated. Passero notes it would have taken a nearly 18 percent increase in money coming from city taxpayers — again to make up for the loss of other aid — to support the increase sought for the schools.

Passero’s recommendations to the City Council appear to be driven by his goal of requiring no tax increase to support his budget proposal in this mayoral election year. General fund spending to support city services would also grow 1.05 percent, but a tax increase would be avoided because of an expanded grand list.

In fact, the mayor’s budget, if adopted, would drop the tax rate from 43.62 mills to 39.9 mills due to the recent revaluation. Based on the revaluation results, the Passero administration projects most single-family, condo and industrial property owners will see their taxes drop, while commercial and multi-family property owners will see an increase.

On the Board of Education side of the equation the reduced grant projections seem overly pessimistic. Conversely, Passero’s meager increase in general fund contributions for education is unrealistically stingy. The council should entertain a higher increase for education, even if it requires a modest increase in total tax revenues. If, in turn, state grants for education come in higher than estimated, a strong possibility, the schools should have a solid funding foundation, though short of what the school board sought.

Norwich

In Norwich, City Manager John Salomone is recommending the City Council boost education spending 2 percent. Spending on the city side would grow 2.7 percent under the manager’s recommendations. As in New London, the increases come without a corresponding tax increase, thanks to a growth in the property tax base. If adopted as recommended, Norwich’s citywide tax rate would drop to 39.95 mills, a 1.06-mill decrease.

That is likely to be welcomed by the 4-3 Republican majority on the City Council, which won control in this normally Democratic city by running on a platform to hold down taxes. The six council seats are up for election in 2019. Mayor Peter Nystrom, a Republican and the seventh vote on the council, is not up for re-election until 2021.

The situation with city schools, however, remains problematic.

Last year the council approved a $78.5 million budget for education, despite the insistence of the Board of Education that it could not run the Norwich schools on that amount. And despite a spending freeze and concessions that cut health insurance costs by more than $1 million, the school system is headed to end the year with a $2.4 million deficit, which will require the council to tap the city’s fund balance reserves.

Salomone’s $80.9 million education budget recommendation would set the stage for another deficit year and undercut the school administration’s efforts to improve academic performance.

While efforts to hold the line in these high-taxed cities are understandable, even admirable, undermining school systems can discourage home ownership and investment, hurting economic health and quality of life. Budgetary policy calculus is more complex than arriving at an election-year friendly mill rate.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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