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Norwich City Council seeks more public input on COVID-19 aid spending plan

Norwich — The City Council on Monday voiced support for a proposed $9.7 million spending plan for the city’s first-year American Rescue Plan grant, but delayed a vote until Sept. 7 to allow for public input on how the city should spend the nearly $30 million expected in the next two years.

City Manager John Salomone said while council approval on ARP spending was not required, he wanted support from the elected leaders.

Some council members in turn said Monday they wanted input and support from the public that elected them to office before endorsing the plan.

Salomone's proposal includes $2.1 million to complete the Uncas Leap Heritage Park, with an amphitheater, walking paths and restrooms; $2.1 million for Norwich Human Services to help residents with rent, mortgage, utility bills, employment and health needs. The Recreation Department would receive $350,000 of that total.

Three partnerships are proposed, including $2 million for Norwich Community Development Corp. to revive the downtown revitalization program and expand it citywide; $1.2 million for Habitat for Humanity of Eastern Connecticut to build and renovate affordable housing and $500,000 for the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition to assist Norwich arts entities.

The plan reviewed by the council Monday contained a few changes from Salomone's initial July 6 presentation. Added was $89,000 for an assistant zoning/blight officer cut from the city budget, and $50,000 for Otis Library.

Alderman Derell Wilson led the effort to stall action. Wilson also proposed two key amendments supported by the full council: $130,000 to upgrade the much-used Jenkins Park sports complex and $500,000 for general neighborhood revitalizations citywide.

Wilson was adamant that the city reach out to residents on spending the one-time windfall. He had asked for a public forum after the July 6 presentation, and suggested going to public parks, events or holding an online forum.

“I can’t sit here and approve this without hearing from the public,” Wilson said. “We haven’t gotten enough emails, enough people in here.”

Alderwoman Stacy Gould expressed concern that a delay could hurt people who urgently need assistance promised through the Human Services Department.

Council President Pro Tempore Mark Bettencourt suggested that, given the council’s strong consensus in favor of the spending proposed thus far, Salomone could get started on some programs and preparations during the next month.

On Tuesday, Salomone said he would work on contracts with the three partners — NCDC, Habitat for Humanity and the arts coalition — to be ready to launch the programs. He also hopes to advertise for bids for the Uncas Leap park soon.

During public comment Monday, resident and school board member Mark Kulos reminded the council that several residents asked in July to build a youth center. Kulos said the $3 million unallocated this year or a portion of next year’s $14.7 million ARP grant be allocated for a community center.

Residents Brian Kobylarz and Shiela Hayes, president of the Norwich branch of the NAACP, both said voting on the plan Monday would be premature. Hayes said the proposed grant budget was not made public until Friday afternoon, allowing little time for residents to respond. Kobylarz questioned the spending for NCDC, when the city has not conducted an audit of the 10-year $3 million downtown revitalization program the agency administered.

“How quickly we forget how we were told the public would be actively engaged in the distribution of ARP funds,” Kobylarz said.

Salomone said he will schedule a City Council public informational meeting on Monday, Aug. 30, in Council Chambers and will ask for written comments from residents unable to attend the meeting.

Wilson said that would not be enough and urged city leaders to meet people in the community, such as at the popular Night Flight summer basketball events, the Rose City United police-community forums or at a city park.

“We have to stop boxing ourselves into just hearing from people coming to council meetings for public comment,” Wilson said Tuesday. “We have parents who have kids in sports, people who work late. We have a Facebook page. We could put a poll on social media, ask for public comment.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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