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Norwich city manager proposes 2020-21 budget with 1.5% increase

Norwich — In a normal year, the budget presented by City Manager John Salomone to the City Council Monday would be a “really good budget,” with a citywide proposed tax increase of less than 2%, a major initiative to regionalize animal control services, a drop in city government expenses and a proposed 2.4% increase to the school budget.

But as with most long-term planning discussions these days, Salomone had to start his budget message with a caution that the proposed expenses and services and projected revenues were made prior to the COVID-19 crisis.

“We think this is a very responsible budget,” Salomone said. “Obviously if it wasn’t so turbulent, it would be a really good budget. We won’t know this for months, exactly what the impact will be.”

The overall budget, including general government spending, capital improvements, the public school budget and debt service, totals $131,896,566, which is $1.9 million or 1.51% more than the current budget. Salomone proposed a $1.96 million, 2.4% increase to the school budget to $83 million, while city government expenses would drop by $71,854, with a $286,666 drop in debt service payments and drop in retiree benefit costs offsetting expense increases, Salomone and city Comptroller Josh Pothier said.

The Board of Education had requested a 5.5% increase in its current year’s $81 million budget, which prior to the COVID-19 school shutdown was expected to end the year with a $1 million deficit. Salomone said his proposed 2.4% school budget increase is higher than the 2% he proposed last year, “to recognize some of the fiscal challenges” the school system faces.

But school Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said the proposed 2.4% increase would mean the school budget likely will end with another deficit next year "just to meet the basic needs of our students." The school board's 5.5% increase was part of a long-term plan to eliminate deficit spending and lessen the district's reliance on grants within three years.

The proposed citywide tax rate would be 41.03 mills, an increase of 0.75 mills, a 1.86% increase. Norwich is divided into one central city paid fire department and five volunteer fire districts. The proposed city paid fire department budget totals $10.5 million, including $2.78 million in citywide services such as the fire marshal, and $7.78 million to be funded through the central city fire tax, which would increase by 0.18 mills. The 0.3 mills taxpayers in the five volunteer districts pay would not change.

The only significant change in the city government budget is a plan for Norwich to contract with the Northeastern Connecticut Council of Governments on animal control services. The Norwich Police Department now includes one full-time animal control officer – currently on injury leave – and a part-time staff person. Police officers have been filling in, which Salomone called inefficient.

A contract with NECCOG is not yet completed and would need City Council approval. But Salomone said the proposal calls for the NECCOG regional animal control program to lease the city animal control facility in Mohegan Park and the city’s animal control vehicles and “fully staff” the service.

Salomone said the change would be “probably very unnoticeable” to the public, but service could improve with the staffing.

The estimated cost to the city would be about $120,000, but Salomone said the city is expected to save about $70,000 per year from current costs to run the service. “We’re going to be their biggest customer,” Salomone said.

Norwich is not a member of NECCOG, belonging instead to the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments. The regional NECCOG animal control service, based in Killingly, serves 18 towns, including several other New London County towns — Bozrah, Colchester, Franklin, Griswold, Lisbon and Sprague. The service has five full-time animal control officers, one part-time officer, an administrative assistant and volunteers to help clean the kennels and exercise the animals held at the Dayville facility in Killingly.

Staffing for the Norwich facility would be spelled out in the proposed contract, Salomone said.

Salomone said residents in those towns could see an advantage, with the Norwich facility becoming regional and being located much closer to their homes.

“That’s been some of my emphasis, to go regional,” Salomone said. “This is a big regional change, and thankfully we’ve had a good negotiating session with them. They’re looking forward to it. It will give them a lot of additional revenue, and we’re looking forward to it. We’re going to save money and I think we’ll have better service.”

Monday’s City Council meeting, including the budget presentation, was held partly in person, with city administrators and some aldermen attending in person spread out in the Council Chambers and others participating by teleconference. The meeting was streamed live on the city website and broadcast on Norwich Comcast government access Channel 97. Public comment was done by phone and email sent prior to the meeting.

The council set the first budget public hearing for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 16, likely with similar remote access arrangements, city officials said.


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