Coalition supporters speak out against proposed budget in New London
New London ― The public Wednesday night had an opportunity to voice its opinion on the city’s $102 million proposed budget for 2023-2024.
And they had a lot to say about allocations for social services and education.
The 48-minute public hearing at City Hall was held in front of the Appropriation Board, comprised of members of the City Council and Board of Finance, who listened but did not respond to comments. The council chamber was full of people from teens to adults.
Many of the 14 public speakers stated they were supporters of New London’s People’s Budget Coalition, a community-led coalition that arose out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each time a member spoke, the packed room was filled with the sound of fingers snapping in support.
In 2021, the coalition advocated for a 35% reduction in the police budget to reallocate to areas such as education, mental health services and recreation. This year members have asked the council to increase the youth service allocation to $250,000, use an additional $1.3 million from the city’s fund balance for education, add $500,000 to the human services department and $500,000 to the Public Works department.
Alicia McAvay, the executive director for FRESH New London and an organizer for the coalition, said the People’s Budget Coalition based its requests from a survey members conducted in 2021 with nearly 1,000 respondents. She said the needs residents listed in the survey persist and have gotten worse.
During her remarks Wednesday, McAvay said councilors have spoken publicly about finding ways to consolidate and fund food pantries in the city differently. She said she supports increasing funds for the human services department so staff can coordinate housing and food needs.
Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein has that responsibility now but coalition members said she does not have enough support.
“The non-profits in the city... we’re fighting for funding. We need somebody at the city who can help us coordinate both housing and food as the cost of both have gone up immensely,” she said.
Regina Mosley, also an organizer and former member of the Board of Education, said she supports no changes to the current tax rate. If approved, the budget would lower the tax rate to 37.15 mills, a .07-mill decrease from the current rate.
She said a decrease at this time does not add up, especially when the salaries for city councilors and the mayor are going up.
The mayor’s salary will rise to $160,000― compared to the $110,000 Mayor Michael Passero gets paid now― when a new mayor is elected in December. Passero has announced he will be running for re-election.
David McBride, the city’s finance director, on Thursday said the city councilors approved an $2,000 increase to their salary stipend last July. The council president earns $6,000; the president pro temp $5,750; and the other councilors $5,500.
Passero said he believes he has come up with a budget that meets the city’s priorities.
While the budget is $3.4 million more than the current budget, McBride said the city has been able to offset the additional cost due to an increase in the tax base and permit fees, among other items. He said this allowed the city to lower the tax rate.
Since becoming mayor, Passero said his philosophy has been “to get away from raising property taxes to cover the rising cost of government.” He said it’s a healthy city’s job to cover governmental increases with increased revenues from the grand list and permits.
He said the city’s goals don’t differ much from the coalition’s but they disagree on how to get there.
Other towns in the region are seeing an increase in their proposed tax rate which remain much lower than New London’s. East Lyme with a proposed budget of $86 million, 7.2% more from the current budget, would likely cause the tax rate to rise by 1.03 mills to 24.87 mills. The Town of Groton has proposed a $149.4 million town and school budget, 4.4% more than the current budget, and increasing the tax rate to 22.24 mills, or 0.96 mills more than the current rate.
Several speakers Wednesday night also talked about a need for more education funding, and advocated for teachers and other staff they said are underpaid.
“I’m so thankful the community has come out and shared what they like to see but I wish they could see the things that have been done,” said City Council President Reona Dyess after the public hearing.
Dyess said the council has allocated nearly $250,000 to youth services two years ago and the council has worked with the school district to set up a savings fund.
McBride confirmed the council approved an additional $242,000 for youth initiatives in the recreation department in the 2021-2022 budget. He said the city has increased funds for the recreation and youth affairs department from $540,000 in 2021 to the proposed $1 million in the 2023-24 budget.
Elaine Maynard-Adams, chairperson of Board of Education, said the school board and city council three years ago created a fund to save certain unused education funds for one-time school construction projects.
She said last winter the council worked with the board to allow those funds to be used for other purposes with the permission of the council. She said the fund now has approximately $1.6 million.
Adams said the district does not plan to use the funds for immediate needs but will use them when COVID-19 relief funds run out next year. When they run out, Adams said students will have continued needs for programs and services such as a school psychologist and social workers, that are being funded by Covid-19 relief money now.
Funding for education makes up 45% of the overall proposed budget. The proposed school budget as it stands is $45.9 million, an increase of $727,650 or 1.6% more than the current budget. The Board of Education originally requested a $2.7 million, or 6%, increase.
Adams said the proposed increase is barely sufficient to cover contracted salary increases and the district will have to draw funds from other departments to fund the raises.
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