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Norwich City Council postpones budget decision to June 8

Norwich — The City Council postponed final action on the proposed 2020-21 budget to June 8 to allow more time to deliberate on difficult possible budget adjustments to the city manager’s proposed $131.9 million combined school and city budget.

The council voted unanimously to postpone action to a special meeting at 7:30 p.m. June 8, the final date allowed by charter to approve a budget. Although they voted for the postponement, Mayor Peter Nystrom and Alderwoman Stacy Gould said they didn’t think one week would provide any more answers about potential outside sources of funding.

Gould said if anything, more bad news will come as the projected state budget deficit balloons with loss of revenue and increased expenses due to COVID-19. The state and cities also face likely drops in revenue from the Mohegan-Pequot Fund, as the two tribal casinos just reopened Monday at a much-reduced capacity after a 2 ½-month-long closure.

Nystrom and Gould pointed out that Norwich Public Utilities already is seeing the financial impact of the casino closures, losing an estimated $1 million per month in revenue with about 20% of customers unable to pay their monthly bills. Norwich has about 18% unemployment, highest in the region, Nystrom said.

“Sharpen your pencils and think about the taxpayers,” Nystrom said. “They’re the ones paying the bills and I just hope they’re still here.”

But other aldermen argued that they wanted more time to deliberate on budget issues, make proposed adjustments and take into consideration the calls, emails and public comment they have received thus far.

The proposed school budget has received the most attention in recent weeks. City Manager John Salomone proposed a 2.4% increase over this year’s $81.03 million total. Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow told the school board the budget would need a 9.11% increase to keep all programs and staffing. The Board of Education in March approved a 5.5% proposed increase to $85.4 million.

An ad hoc committee of six school board members and three aldermen endorsed the 5.5% increase, which still would require deep cuts in programs and staffing.

Although the City Council does not decide school budget specifics beyond a bottom line total, the council heard from numerous speakers Monday who objected to proposed cuts outlined by Superintendent Stringfellow two weeks ago.

Several teachers and parents objected to a proposal to eliminate two elementary school magnet themes and some 50 support staff positions. Speakers objected to a plan to eliminate custodial positions at a time when extra cleaning is needed for COVID-19 prevention precautions and said cutting preschool programs and before and after school care would hurt the children and the city’s economy.

Cynthia White, a teacher at the Moriarty Environmental Sciences Magnet School, said the students and families have embraced the magnet concept, and losing their “family” during the ongoing trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic education disruptions would be even more detrimental.

White and other educators who called in suggested other expense cuts, including consolidating bus stops to cut transportation costs or creating four-day school weeks with longer days.

Board of Education Chairwoman Heather Romanski urged the council to support the 5.5% budget increase. Even with the $85.4 million budget total, the school board would face difficult cuts.

Norwich residents Marvin Serruto and John Blackburn were the only speakers opposed to increasing either the school or city budget. Serruto said the council should approve 2020-21 budgets with no increases “whatsoever.” He said the city faces too many unknowns to be increasing budgets. And Blackburn said those supporting large increases in the school budget failed to take into considerations the financial constraints of many city taxpayers.

c.bessette@theday.com

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