Groton leaders stunned by proposed state cuts

February 14, 2017

Groton — Groton would absorb the largest dollar loss in state funding of any municipality in the state under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed budget, and local leaders have vowed to fight the proposal.
The town would lose about $14.17 million under the proposal.

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, scheduled a news conference for 10 a.m. Monday at the Groton School Administrative Building, inviting members of the Groton Town Council, education union leaders and the superintendent. State Reps. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, and Christine Conley, D-Groton, also will attend.

“The cuts to Groton are unacceptable, irresponsible and the entire delegation will be fighting them,” Somers wrote in an email to councilors.

Not only would the cuts be devastating to the town, schools and residents struggling to pay existing taxes, they would damage the business environment by hiking property taxes for businesses as well, she said.
“What are you going to do if you’re Pfizer? And you see your taxes go up? You’d say, ‘I’m out of here.’ Because this doesn’t only affect homeowners,” Somers said. “That is not exactly business friendly. That’s almost a calling card for Massachusetts. We might as well get into the loading vans and help them move.”

Town officials expressed shock at the proposed cuts but also tried to understand how they were calculated. Malloy is proposing to change the formula for Education Cost Sharing — the largest education grant to cities and towns that is included in their total municipal aid — to better reflect the wealth or poverty of communities.

Part of the new formula calculates wealth partly based on the number of students enrolled in the Husky program, or state health insurance for low-income children and their parents, Groton Schools Superintendent Michael Graner said.

One-quarter of Groton’s students, or about 1,000 children, are ineligible for the program because they are military dependents, he said. This puts Groton at a clear disadvantage as low-income families living in military housing would not be counted, he said.

“Husky in most communities is one reasonable factor” to determine wealth, Graner said. “Except not for our kids.” The formula appears to portray Groton as across-the-board wealthy, rather than a mixed community of wealthy areas, middle-class homes and low-income housing, he said.

Town Councilor Karen Morton said she was stunned by the scope of the cut. “I don’t know why we’re being singled out as somehow having way more money than any of the other municipalities, like Fairfield or Westport and Greenwich. Somehow I find this hard to believe,” she said.

Morton said she was “trying to figure out where in the world” Groton officials would be able to come up with the lost funding. “This is way more than just making some 5 percent reductions to departments. You’re talking about wholesale elimination of services,” she said.

Education funding cuts would hit Groton particularly hard because the town receives less in federal education grants than it needs to educate children who live in tax-exempt military housing, Graner said. Groton receives about $3.5 million in federal money toward the cost of education for military dependents. State funding and local taxpayers cover the rest.

Given this, if the state cuts education funding to Groton, town taxpayers would have to make up the difference unless federal funding increased. “So if the tax burden has to go up, it only goes up on the Groton residents,” Graner said.

The Board of Education already is struggling to cut the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, board member Lee White said. “We are so close to bare bones,” she said. “Every time we have a budget, there are certain (costs) that go higher and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it” because 70 percent of the school budget is salaries and benefits.

The governor’s proposal would force the district to cut programs, teachers, administrators and other staff, White said. “I’m depressed, needless to stay,” she said. “I can’t think of another word other than ‘devastation.’”