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    Tuesday, June 18, 2024

    Norwich City Council narrowly approves $156M city, school budget

    Norwich — The City Council adopted a final budget Monday along narrow party lines after 90 minutes of bitter partisan debate, political attacks and allegations of political motivations.

    The council’s majority four Democrats came to Monday’s final budget session with three pages of budget adjustments, while the three council Republicans rejected all substantive changes.

    The six sections of amendments included adding $2.4 million to the school budget and cutting $200,852 from numerous city government departments.

    The budget also includes increased revenue projections by the city finance office of $470,000.

    The Democrats also shifted money in the capital budget to allocate $207,546 to start funding the purchase of a $1.2 million firetruck for the central city department to replace Squad A truck. Norwich Fire Chief Tracy Montoya told the council the truck is the primary response apparatus for the city fire department, including serving as the primary pumper truck.

    Funding the first portion of the firetruck in part meant eliminating $44,773 initially allocated to the Taftville Volunteer Fire Department to replace a kitchen hood that does not meet safety codes. Montoya, who serves as city fire marshal, said the department can use the kitchen for in-house events but not for public events. Taftville regularly hosts Sunday breakfast fundraisers.

    All votes were 4-3 with the majority four Democrats, Council President Pro Tempore Joseph DeLucia and Aldermen Mark Bettencourt, Shiela Hayes and Swaranjit Singh Khalsa in favor, and the council’s three Republicans, Mayor Peter Nystrom and Aldermen William Nash and Stacy Gould, voting against all budget measures.

    Norwich underwent property revaluation this year, which dramatically raised residential property values, meaning despite tax rate drops with the new budget, homeowners can expect tax increases July 1. The new approved tax rate is 32.99 mills citywide, up from 32.52 in City Manager John Salomone’s initial proposed budget, plus 0.26 mills for taxpayers in the five volunteer tax districts and 5.21 mills for the paid central city fire district.

    Aldermen argued over the $2.4 million increase in the school budget. Democrats praised school officials for cutting more than $4 million since the school board first proposed a $100 million budget in March.

    Democrats called the final $95.68 million school budget an honest budget, arguing that Republicans during their previous council majority “intentionally underfunded” the school budget, resulting in deficits at the end of the year. This year’s school budget is expected to end with a $3 million deficit that will need to be reconciled this summer.

    “To taxpayers, this is not what you might like, but this is the reality,” Singh Khalsa said. “We need to fund schools appropriately, so we don’t end up in the hole.”

    Nash bristled at the accusation, insisting he never intentionally underfunded the school budget or any budget. He said Republicans in the past approved budgets at levels they felt taxpayers could afford.

    “I just want to tell the taxpayers out there I’m really sorry about what’s about to happen to you,” Nash said. “There’s nothing I can do to stop it.”

    The two parties also bickered over how much the new tax rates would raise homeowners’ taxes. Nystrom warned some homeowners could see increases of 27%, 40% or even 48% in their tax bills. DeLucia said he calculated his own tax increase at about $100 a month.

    Nystrom accused Democrats of orchestrating the budget changes to appease political supporters who donated to their campaigns in the last municipal election.

    “That’s going to hurt a lot of people,” Nystrom said of the budget increase.

    Bettencourt countered that the main problem lies with the lack of commercial and industrial development in recent years. He pointed out the city charter designates the mayor as head of economic development in the city.

    Nystrom responded that high taxes would hurt efforts to attract and retain development.

    Each party accused the other of partisan politics. Bettencourt said Republicans dictated their budget choices when they had the majority.

    “There’s plenty of blame to go around for each and every person sitting up here,” Bettencourt said, adding Republicans did not bring any proposed budget changes to the table to discuss.

    “I have never sat up here and gave two craps about Democrats or Republicans,” Nash said. “What I did care about was taking care of the city and what I thought was in the best interests of everyone — children, fire departments, police departments, public works, senior citizens. It doesn’t matter. And sometimes, we had to make tough decisions.”

    c.bessette@theday.com

    Editor’s note: This version corrects Council President Pro Tempore Joseph DeLucia’s calcuation on his property taxes.

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