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UPDATED: Norwich City Council forced to make last-minute budget cuts

Norwich — A proposed controversial fire services director, other new positions and three vacant police officer positions were cut from the proposed 2021-22 city budget Monday night, but the City Council spared the school budget of further cuts.

The council's action came after learning a proposed one-time $3.5 million distressed municipalities grant was not part of the final state budget approved last week.

Norwich will see a $1.4 million annual increase in payments in lieu of taxes and a $1.3 million boost to education funding in the new state budget. But Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed $3.5 million distressed municipality grant was not part of the legislature’s budget package from the start, state Sen. Cathy Osten said Monday. City leaders, though, had used the governor’s proposed revenues to craft the initial city budget.

Removing that $3.5 million revenue would have led to a steep tax increase without the spending cuts outlined by City Manager John Salomone and approved late Monday by the City Council.

After Monday's cuts, the final combined city, school, capital and debt service budget totals $145.6 million. The citywide tax rate was set at 41.98 mills, a slight reduction from this year's 42.06 mills. The central city fire tax will be 6.66 mills, an increase of 0.25 mills. The volunteer fire district tax of 0.37 mills is up by 0.05 mills.

Salomone had proposed cutting another $1.24 million from the school budget, leaving it with just a 1% increase over this year's $84 million budget. But after a debate and confusion over whether the increase in the city's state education grant was earmarked directly to the school district or to the city's general fund, aldermen rejected the cut, keeping the school budget at $86.3 million, a 2.5% increase.

Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow pleaded with the council that the additional $1.3 million increase in state education funds to Norwich in the final state budget be directed to the school budget.

Salomone countered by suggesting that the school board receive 60% of the $1.3 million, and the city side of the budget receive the other 40% to ease some of the cuts on that side, a plan aldermen rejected.

As they discussed the "painful" city budget cuts, Alderman Derell Wilson suggested the city use some of its federal COVID-19 relief funds to restore some of the last-minute cuts.

"I certainly did not want to do a cut to any budget today," Salomone said.

The list of city cuts included eliminating the controversial proposed fire services director position, recommended in a February fire services study to better integrate and coordinate fire services citywide, saving $129,191. Other new positions would be eliminated in the plan, including the second blight-zoning enforcement officer, boosting a part-time finance and city clerk’s office clerk to full time and not filling three vacant police officer positions.

The council also reduced its funding to the Norwich Community Development Corp. to the current $150,000 level, erasing a plan to increase the amount by $50,000. The capital budget was cut by $121,247, and $25,000 for marketing, $25,000 to develop a multicultural program and $25,000 for Otis Library also were cut.

"I hate the idea of these cuts," Council President Pro Tempore Mark Bettencourt said. "I'm a big fan of Otis Library. I agree too that it’s necessary. We can’t be passing this total amount onto the taxpayers in the depressed economy."

c.bessette@theday.com

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