Monroe Town Council sends municipal budget to the finance board

Monroe Town Hall on a sunny afternoon. Photo by John Babina

MONROE, CT — Town Council members agreed to make a donation to The Center for Family Justice, restore library funds for staffing of the Makerspace at Edith Wheeler Memorial Library, and engaged in debate over grant writing and the social worker’s hours, before approving a $32,354,075 municipal budget Monday night.

Now the Board of Finance will review it as part of the $103.67 million town budget proposal, which includes funds for Monroe’s public schools. After the Board of Finance approves a budget, the final proposal will be decided by voters at a referendum at St. Jude School on May 7.

Before the Council voted on the municipal budget for town services, First Selectman Terry Rooney said, “I hope you will adopt this budget. There was a lot of due diligence and a lot of hours went into this budget.”

Just before the unanimous 9-0 vote to approve the budget, Councilman Jason Maur said, “I want to thank everyone. I think this is a strong town budget. I will support it tonight. Is it a perfect budget?” None ever is.

Maur said he will ask the Board of Finance to increase the anticipated revenue from interest and projected tax collections, so the mill rate can be lowered.

A full-time social worker?

During the meeting, Councilwoman Cathy Kohut made a motion to change the town social worker from part-time to full-time, because Community and Social Services Director Kim Cassia told the Council during a budget workshop that her social worker works beyond her regular hours, including weekends.

Rooney said Cassia did not mention the need for more hours during meetings when his administration was putting together the municipal budget.

“It was just never an ask,” he said. “Unless there’s an ask, it’s hard to respond to it. The conversation that night was somewhat surprising to me. Everybody can use more help. I don’t know if it’s completely needed, but if this council believes it is …”

“I’m going to take the selectman’s advice and vote against it,” Vice Chair Enid Lipeles said.

“We could look forward to revisiting it during the next budget cycle, when it is formally requested,” Councilman Sean O’Rourke said. “I think that’s the best way to go about this.”

Finance Director Ronald Bunovsky Jr. said an additional $55,850 in salary and benefits would have to be approved to make the social worker full-time.

Instead of a Town Council vote, Maur suggested Kohut withdraw the motion, so the first selectman can discuss it more with his staff and the Board of Finance could consider it when its members review the municipal budget.

Kohut withdrew the motion.

The Makerspace, CFJ

When putting together the budget, Rooney said he removed money for the Makerspace for Edith Wheeler Memorial Library, because the library underspent its budget the last few years. But after talking to Director Nicole Cignoli after, she explained the need.

“The Makerspace is used more than people think, so I would support the Town Council if it adds the money back in,” Rooney said. “There’s a possibility she won’t spend it, but it would be there if she needs it.”

The Council unanimously voted to restore $10,320 to the library’s part-time salaries account.

At a budget hearing, Nick Kapoor, who serves on the board for The Center for Family Justice, told the Council that Monroe and Easton are the only two of the six towns the nonprofit serves that do not include an annual contribution in their budgets.

According to CFJ, it assisted 267 Monroe abuse victims last year, at a cost of $86,961.

Kapoor asked town officials to include a $5,000 to $10,000 contribution for CFJ in this year’s budget and to continue making annual contributions as long as Monroe is a member town.

On Monday night, Rooney said he met with Debra Greenwood, president and CEO of CFJ, and spoke of how the nonprofit does a great job providing a needed service to the town.

“I would not oppose a donation made in that direction,” he said, adding Greenwood was unaware the town was considering a donation. “She was surprised, but happily surprised.”

Councilwoman Janice Persico made a motion to approve a $10,000 donation for CFJ, which passed unanimously.

Chairman Jonathan Formichella said some other towns give money to CFJ through grant programs. “Maybe that’s something we can look at next year, to do this instead of using taxpayer dollars.”

“I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment,” Maur said. “If we are able to get grant money for future years, that’s the thing to do for this town and this wonderful cause.”

The grant writer debate

The municipal budget proposal includes a special projects coordinator in the Community and Economic Development Department. Grant writing would be among the responsibilities of the part-time position.

On Monday, Kohut made a motion to increase the position to a full-time grant writer.

Bunovsky said this would cost the town about $116,000, including a $70,000 salary with benefits. This would be a net budget increase of $88,711.

Kohut said the amount of money the town can bring in from proper research of grants and execution in applying for them would far exceed the $88,711.

“It would be penny wise and pound foolish not to have someone full-time,” she said.

The motion was defeated 7-2, with Formichella, Lipeles, Vincent Duva, Sean O’Rourke, Kevin Reid, Dona-Lyn Wales and Maur voting no and Kohut and Persico voting yes.

Maur voted no, because he favors having an account to hire grant writers on retainer.

During the discussion, Rooney said he talked to grant writers he knows from Bridgeport to get their feedback and found they enjoy working off a retainer and getting a percentage.

The first selectman said Community and Economic Development Director William Holsworth has grant writing as part of his job description and has had a lot of success obtaining grants.

Rooney said he could see the possibility of bringing in more grants, but is thankful for the job Holsworth does. Of the special projects coordinator, he said, “this part-time position will free Bill up and give us an advantage.”

“I just don’t feel a full-time position is necessary,” he said. “I’d say, let’s see how the new part-time position works with Bill. In my humble opinion, working here with Bill and seeing what he does, I think the hire would be a good help.”

Rooney said he is conservative and does not want to increase the budget, unless it’s data based.

Holsworth told the Town Council about $1,050,000 worth of grants he obtained for the town in the past year, including a:

  • $500,000 Small Town Economic Assistance Program (STEAP) grant from the state of Connecticut to fund upgrades and a small expansion to the Monroe Animal Shelter
  • $200,000 for STEM lab technology upgrades
  • $200,000 for a septic replacement at the Monroe Senior Center and
  • $150,000 to renovate the basketball courts at Wolfe Park, which can now also be used for pickleball.

Holsworth said the special projects coordinator position will help him in applying for grants, and rattled off a list of other grants he’s working on.

Of having a full-time grant writer instead, he said, “I am adamantly against a portion of that grant money going to salary.”

“Why don’t we see how the part-time position works this year and assess it again next year?” Formichella said.

Maur expressed his support for having a small fund to hire grant writers on retainer, reasoning that they could find and apply for grants the town is unaware of and departments do not have the manpower and time to pursue.

Rooney told the Council to keep in mind that some grants require significant buy in from the town. For instance, matching grants, in addition to the retainer fee for the grant writer.

But Maur noted grant writers are only paid when they obtain grants. He said a small fee is worth it to obtain a larger amount of money from a grant the town otherwise would not get. He added that the town would not have to accept every grant a writer wants to pursue.

Maur asked Human Resources Director Craig Hirsch how much money should go into a fund to hire grant writers on retainer and Hirsh said he would have to research it.

Persico asked Holsworth if he could keep the Council informed of how the new part-time position is going after someone is hired and he said he could. Rooney said he could also update the Town Council.

Though she was asking for a full time grant writer, Kohut wanted to make sure Holsworth knew she was not criticizing the job he’s been doing.

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