DARIEN — A continued decrease in state funding could result in an increase in the town taxes, officials say.
Darien, like much of Fairfield County, will be among Connecticut municipalities expected to see a 25 to 90 percent reduction in Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant funding from the state.
The decision was announced in a Dec. 29 letter from Benjamin Barnes, secretary of the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management. In the letter, Barnes explains that the state’s 25 wealthiest communities would receive cuts of up to 90 percent in Fiscal Year 2017.
Based on Barnes’ recommendations, Darien would see a 47 percent cut, down from $775,553, as projected in August 2016, to a total grant of $406,683.
“What this means for Darien is less revenue available to offset budget increases from non-education expenses and ultimately, if town-side spending is not carefully managed, would result in a tax (mill rate) increase for the coming fiscal year,” said to First Selectman Jayme Stevenson in an email on Jan. 3.
Stevenson added that, in addition to the ECS cuts, Darien received word that its Local Capital Improvement (LoCIP) grant of $111,194 would also be eliminated.
For distressed school districts like Bridgeport, Danbury and Stamford, the cut will be held to $250,000 each.
State OPM Director Benjamin Barnes said the power to make the cut was built into the budget adopted by the General Assembly last spring.
“The numbers are close to what we held back last year, although this year the money is being held out of the (Education Cost Sharing formula) instead of a combination of ECS and a (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) to municipalities,” Barnes said.
In addition to education reductions, the state is planning to cut $30 million in bonding from municipal construction projects.
In most cases, the midyear education cut will hurt the bottom line of municipalities that build state revenues into their budgets.
The new cuts also come on the heels of a 3 percent cut made in education aid from last year to this year.
James Finley, a principal consultant to Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education — a group that sued the state over education funding — said the cut was incredible.
“This latest cut to ECS underscores the importance of judicial action to ensure that the state constitutional right to an equitable and adequate educational opportunity for all public school students is honored by all branches of state government.” Finley said.
New Canaan’s grant, which was projected at $678,845, would be reduced by 50 percent to $339,590.
“It’s not a surprise. We were told we’d get 50 percent and that’s what we’re getting. That’s $330,000 less this year than we had hoped to get, and if you look at the last couple years it’s a significant drop. The burden ultimately falls on the taxpayers and school administration. It’s a true hardship,” said New Canaan First Selectman Rob Mallozzi.
According to Mallozzi, there are two ways to offset the cuts.
“Either efficiencies are found at the Board of Education level, or that shortfall gets in the tax rate. It doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in the mill rate. We work in town to find efficiencies. But it could mean other things we have planned to do operationally as a town and Board of Education may not happen,” Mallozzi said.
Not all municipalities, however, are losing out on funding to the same extent. According to Barnes, the state’s 68 poorest communities would lose 1 percent or less of their funding, so as to ensure resources are still available to schools in lower income parts of the state.
Elsewhere in Fairfield County, Bridgeport, for instance, stands to lose just 0.1 percent of its funding. Norwalk and Stamford would lose 2.2 and 2.3 percent, respectively, of their ECS funding.
And though Mallozzi said he is disappointed, because of his faith in the ability of New Canaan’s elected officials, he is not disheartened.
“The only good news is we’re a smart town with a lot of good people on our Board of Education, Board of Finance and Town Council who were never banking on that money,” Mallozzi said. “We’re smart enough to know that the state is in horrible shape and we were going to suffer a hit.”
Still, according to Stevenson, the state’s choice to continue to divert ECS funds away from towns like Darien is undue.
“The loss of revenue from the state will require local taxpayers to bear the full burden of the cost of education and government services,” Stevenson said. “While I understand the state’s dire fiscal condition, I cannot support, through the elimination of ECS funding for certain districts, their abdication of their fundamental responsibility to educate our children … all children regardless of geography.”