NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk officials gathered Wednesday to draw attention to increased funding for Norwalk via the biennial State budget, its coffers stuffed by federal COVID-19 money.
Direct municipal aid to Norwalk has increased by more than 29% in this fiscal year and more than 33% in the following fiscal year, a news release from State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) explained. This is an increase of $5,111,709 in Fiscal Year 22 and $5,700,345 in FY 23.
The $46.4 billion two-year state budget passed June 9 avoids major tax hikes, pumps huge new dollars into municipalities and social services and provides tax relief for restaurants and the working poor. The budget does not touch Connecticut’s record-setting $3 billion-plus rainy day fund, but it does rely on $1.75 billion in federal coronavirus relief grants to stay in balance.
It’s the first bipartisan budget vote since 2018: 22 out of 53 Republicans joined 94 Democrats to pass the measure 116-31 in the House and the Democrat-controlled Senate passed it 31-4.
The move leaves the state poised to deposit more than $1 billion in surplus funds from the outgoing budget into Connecticut’s cash-starved pension funds.
Duff’s Tuesday news release touted increased education funding to Norwalk.
“The Education Cost Sharing Formula (ECS) accounted for $588,351 in FY 2022 and $1,176,702 in FY 2023 of the total increase. The bill maintains the phase in for growing communities, such as Norwalk, and builds on the revised ECS Formula passed four years ago by increasing the weight for low-income students and English Language Learners from 15% to 25%,” it said. “Additionally, priority school districts received an increase in funding in the budget, though the total increase to Norwalk is unknown at this time.”
Norwalk Public Schools has also received about $24.8 million from the American Rescue Plan, the third round of federal COVID-19 funding passed this spring. But while Duff touts the increased ECS funding and the “ESSER” (federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) money rolls in, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella and NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton have criticized the City’s “flat funding” for the schools’ budget.
The City maintained NPS at its 2020-21budget level. Estrella and Hamilton have said they’re therefore forced to use COVID-19 funds to “supplant” regular education expenses and the schools’ Finance Department has been scrambling to assign the ESSER funds in a legally acceptable manner.
“The intended use of this grant is to reopen schools and accelerate learning and mitigate learning loss,” Hamilton said in May. “It allows (local education agencies) broad discretion in determining those needs, and encourages building long term systems of support to modernize and sustain improvements.”
Hamilton and Estrella have also repeatedly warned of a fiscal “cliff” when the COVID-19 money runs out but the schools’ expenses have grown.
This is also a warning heard on the State level, as, again, the new biennial State budget relies on about $1.75 billion in federal coronavirus pandemic relief to remain in balance, setting up a huge potential hole in state finances when that aid is exhausted in 2024.
Another top priority in the State budget centers on the community-based nonprofit agencies that deliver the bulk of state-sponsored social services in Connecticut.
The industry has not received a major funding increase in more than a decade, and the CT Community Nonprofit Alliance estimates that, after adjusting for inflation, compensation has effectively fallen by $461 million per year since 2007.
The new budget chops into that gap considerably, dedicating an average of about $105 million more per year over the biennium for these agencies.
But the budget stipulates that nearly half of those funds, about $100 million, must effectively be used to resolve a labor dispute involving unionized caregivers at group homes that serve developmentally disabled clients.
Duff’s news release offers this list:
- Norwalk Symphony: $50,000 for each year of the biennium
- Norwalk High School Robotics Club: $10,000 for each year of the biennium
- SAVE: $100,000 for each year of the biennium
- Norwalk Maritime Aquarium: $500,000 for each year of the biennium
- Person-to-Person: $300,000 for each year of the biennium
- Open Choice Pilot Program for up to 50 Norwalk students per year to attend a school in either Darien, New Canaan, Wilton, Weston or Westport through their high school graduation
- Cradle to Career: $100,000 for each year of the biennium
- Stepping Stones Museum for Children: $30,863 for each year of the biennium
- Connecticut Writing Project: $100,000 for each year of the biennium
- Women’s Business Development Council: $450,000 for each year of the biennium
- Child First Funding: $5,100,000 for each year of the biennium
And, “State funding for local public health departments has increased in this budget over 63% from current levels,” it states.
“The bipartisan approval of the 2022-2023 biennial state budget sends a clear message to all of the residents of our great state – this is the most progressive, transformative, and life-changing budget our state has ever seen,” Gov. Ned Lamont said June 9, after the Senate vote. “We agreed across party lines that now is the time to ensure thousands of families have access to affordable childcare, the expansion of access to free and affordable healthcare will provide security to households, and investments in our future through workforce development will make our state stronger.”
“This budget is good for Connecticut families because there’s no new taxes in this,” said Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, who voted for the plan. “Connecticut families didn’t need more financial burdens. What they needed was a financial break.”
Tax bills are set to go down slightly in most Norwalk districts but increase .04% in the Third District and .02% in the Fifth District.
“We also felt that, again, the (ARP) funds should be used for the greatest good,” Rilling said in April. “And probably the easiest way to accommodate that greatest good across businesses, residents, is to come in at a zero-tax increase, rather than seeing people have to pay more. Some people have lost their employment. Landlords are not able to collect rent in many cases, businesses have seen a decline in their revenue. There’s a lot of different things that are impacting not only the city of Norwalk, but Fairfield County, Connecticut, and indeed the entire nation.”
Duff’s Tuesday news release also mentions school construction money:
- Cranbury Elementary School: $10,125,000 school construction grant
- Naramake Elementary School: $1,127,500 school construction grant
And, in an item not related to State spending, Duff’s release speaks of Senate Bill 1037, “which expanded the Bottle Bill statutes in Connecticut,” and “will create a new five cent deposit on ‘nips.’”
“The revenue from these deposits made in Norwalk will go directly to the City,” it states. “This money can be used to help clean up the environment and for programs that benefit the environment in Norwalk. Based on 2020 sales of ‘nips’ made in our City, it is anticipated that this bill will bring in approximately $58,000 per year.”