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Towns may not see much in savings, despite closure of schools and shortened municipal office hours

Schools are closed across Connecticut and many municipal buildings and offices are running on reduced schedules in response to the COVID-19 public health crisis, but towns may not see much in the way of cost-savings from those closures.

Harwinton First Selectman Michael Criss says his town has closed most municipal offices and the town hall is running on a reduced schedule, which means some savings on office supplies, fuel, utility costs and maintenance.

“All of that stuff came to a screeching halt,” Criss said. “The real savings I’d like to see is from the school district, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Executive Director of the Council of Small Towns Betsy Gara says it’s too early to tell if towns are likely to see any real cost savings from closing down schools and reducing municipal business hours.

“The federal CARES Act and corresponding provisions in [Gov. Ned Lamont’s] Executive Orders require towns to continue to pay school employees and contractors, including bus contractors,” Gara wrote in an email. “Given that personnel costs comprise a huge portion of the education budget, towns may realize little if any savings due to school closures.” 

Lamont extended the shutdown of both schools and nonessential businesses until May 20, but many believe the school year will end without schools being reopened. School districts have turned to distance learning which may actually increase the cost of education.

“Towns are incurring additional costs for technology to support distance learning and hold virtual meetings,” Gara said.

Lamont issued Executive Order 7R, which says municipalities and boards of education should continue to pay all school staff, including janitors, cafeteria workers and clerical staff “to the greatest extent practicable.”

The order also calls for the continuing of payment for school transportation contracts with busing companies and private providers of special education services. Although the order allows those contracts to be amended to a limited extent, it also requires full payment for workers covered under those contracts.

“Such continued compensation and health insurance for staff or others providing special education and transportation services and employees shall be continued to the greatest extent practicable – whether full-time or part-time – at rates commensurate to those paid and provided immediately prior to the declaration of these public health and civil preparedness emergencies, whether or not services are actually or immediately rendered,” the order says.

Lamont’s executive order was issued in accordance with guidelines from the federal CARES Act stimulus package.

The Connecticut State Department of Education is awaiting an estimated $111 million in education stabilization funds from the U.S. Department of Education, 90 percent of which is to go to local education agencies, according to Peter Yazbak, Director of Communications for the SDE. 

“To be eligible to receive education funding under CARES Act, local BOEs should compensate their employees and contractors during this period of disruption to the greatest extent practicable,” Yazbak wrote in an email. 

Gara says her organization is awaiting guidance from the state regarding CARES Act funds.

Yazbak says they expect the U.S. Department of Education to make applications for those funds available in the next 30 days.

But the pandemic and economic mitigation efforts by Lamont may also affect towns in other ways, according to State Senator and Mayor of Vernon Dan Champagne.  

Lamont issued an executive order extending tax filing deadlines until July 15, including property taxes collected by municipalities. The order applies to individuals and businesses that can “attest to or document significant economic impact by COVID-19, and/or those that document they are providing relief to those significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“If some of our biggest taxpayers aren’t paying for 90 days, that could be a hit,” Champagne said. “Any money we do save will have to be used to carry us through till tax collections come in.”

Champagne says that while the Town of Vernon is in a strong position to weather the delay in tax revenue, the town is still looking at how the effects of Lamont’s various executive orders will impact the town. Vernon’s municipal offices remain open to the public by appointment only and have been outfitted with protective barriers.

“We have a lot of things we’re working on at this point,” Champagne said. “We’re examining every angle at the town level and how this will affect our budget and our residents.”

The CARES Act provided for direct federal assistance to municipalities with more than 500,000 residents but no Connecticut city has nearly that many people.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities is pushing for the Lamont administration to share part of an estimated $1.4 billion in federal stimulus funds for the state of Connecticut with municipalities.

“Local officials are using untold resources and person-power to fight the COVID-19 scourge — unbudgeted resources,” Executive Director of CCM Joe DeLong wrote in an April 2 letter to Lamont. “Many communities that are part of the state epicenter of the crisis, like New Haven, were facing big deficits before the pandemic.”

**Meghan Portfolio contributed to this article**

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