Rosenthal says Newtown should use $7.5M in COVID money to ‘take the sting out of the mill rate’

Photo of Rob Ryser
Newtown First Selectman Dan Rosenthal.

Newtown First Selectman Dan Rosenthal.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

NEWTOWN — Technically speaking, the federal Treasury Department does not want local governments using billions in pandemic relief money to lower taxes.

But in practice that is what Newtown’s top-elected leader proposes to do with the town’s $7.6 million in American Rescue Plan grants.

“I think we are better off in my view doing things that take the sting out of the mill rate because we don’t bond for things, and we try to get them out of the operating budget,” Newtown First Selectman Dan Rosenthal said during a discussion last week. “If businesses and individuals alike feel the sting of the mill rate going up…I think the more that we (use ARP grants) to do what was already in our project plans, where we bond less for the next 20 years, it will benefit and help everybody.”

Rosenthal’s comments followed a presentation to the Board of Selectmen from Newtown Finance Director Robert Tait about recently released federal rules for using the pandemic relief grants.

The money may be used to support public health, to replace public sector revenue loss, to improve water and sewer infrastructure, to address negative economic impacts, to give premium pay to essential workers, and to improve broadband infrastructure, Tait said.

Tait then listed qualifying projects that Newtown might consider, including providing wireless internet service at the community center and the senior center, fixing a municipal roof, replacing aging police cruiser cameras, building a patio at the community center, creating a bicycle playground at the Fairfield Hills campus, renovating the Parks and Recreation Department pavilion, and replacing the water distribution system at Fairfield Hills.

“You can’t use it to reduce taxes,” Tait told Rosenthal and the Board of Selectman during last Monday’s meeting.

“Well, indirectly we are,” Rosenthal said. “The police cameras if we don’t pay for them (with ARP money) we would have to pay for them somewhere else.”

The discussion about how to spend $1.56 billion granted by the federal government to Connecticut’s cities and towns is happening across the state. That money to towns and cities is on top of $4.77 billion awarded to the state, $1.67 billion awarded to independent agencies in Connecticut and $3.93 billion awarded directly to Connecticut residents, Tait noted.

In Newtown, where the discussion is just beginning about how the town should spend its share, the school district has already made a two-year plan for spending its $1.2 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds.

The school district’s plan includes hiring specialists, bolstering homework and tutoring programs, and buying 300 Chromebook laptops.

Although the town has time to decide how to spend its $7.6 million, Rosenthal encouraged leaders to find a consensus soon about how much of that money should be allotted to reduce the cost of borrowing $8 million for ventilation and air conditioning upgrades to the 100-year-old Hawley Elementary School.

A referendum to is planned for November.

“We should get a message out to the public as far as what we would intend if the public endorsed the project, how much we would intend to bond versus how much we would use ARP for,” Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal and the Board of Selectmen are expected to take up the discussion at its next meeting.