Cutting $100K from Bethel’s parks and recreation programs upsets residents

BETHEL — A $100,000 cut to parks and recreation program funding was a hot topic

BETHEL — A $100,000 cut to parks and recreation program funding was a hot topic during Monday evening’s public hearing on the town’s $81.9 million proposed spending plan for 2021-22.

Several residents spoke out against the reduction during the virtual hearing, arguing that the department’s programs are more important than ever following a year of restricted socialization.

“These past 12 months have been extremely difficult on all of us — especially the youth of our community, who have been isolated and forced to socialize in very unnatural ways,” resident Greg Henry said.


The $100,000 cut in Parks and Recreation program funding was made earlier this month after the Board of Finance slashed $660,000 from the school and town budgets in an effort to reduce the year-over-year mill rate increase to 1.9 percent — leaving $49 million for education and $32.8 million for town operations.

The town side of the budget — from which $260,000 was cut — includes roughly $26.7 million for municipal operating expenses, nearly $5.8 million in debt service and $350,000 for school building maintenance.

The school budget was reduced by $400,000, and school Superintendent Christine Carver said a special meeting will be held April 1, to figure out where cuts will be made.

The town and school budgets combined reflect an overall spending increase of 2.62 percent.

Board of Finance Chair Bob Manfreda said the $100,000 cut in Parks and Recreation program funding is not meant to reduce programs, but to avoid what happened last year.”

“We budgeted for a regular year, COVID didn’t agree with us, and we ended up putting in the budget program services that … were not rendered,” he said, adding that there is still “some uncertainty about COVID.”

Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman Pat Morton said the department is not expecting a repeat of last year and has been “looking forward to moving ahead with a full and active schedule.”

“Residents of all ages are eager to participate in activities we provide, and we’re expecting little to no restrictions come this fall and the future months ahead,” he said.

Not only has there been a “consistent increase” in program participation since the start of the school year, Morton said, but he believes the Parks and Recreation Department “can help all Bethel citizens recover from the past year.”

With the $100,000 cut, Manfreda said there’s still almost $400,000 in the Parks and Recreation programming account for the Parks and Recreation Director Eileen Earle and her team to run early programs.

“If Eileen comes back to us and says she can run (more) programs, I’m confident that this Board of Finance would then work to get the additional $100,000 funding for the programs,” Manfreda said.

Some residents said they were skeptical about that.

“The history of resistance when it comes to budgetary requests in the town of Bethel makes me highly suspect that this would be guaranteed,” Henry said.

Bethel residents Jennifer Larsen echoed that sentiment and said the town has made similar promises in the past that went unfulfilled.

“As a member of the school board and as a private citizen, I’ve seen it,” she said. “‘We’ll put those teachers back next year, we’ll replace that money next year’ — and it never happens.”

As a teacher in Danbury’s public school system, Larsen said she has also seen the effects that lack of social outlets can have on children, and the idea of depriving people of programming that could benefit their social-emotional well-being makes her “nervous.”

Hoffman agreed and said parks and recreation provides “invaluable” opportunities for physical exercise and human connection that could help with the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemdic.

“We’ve literally all been quarantined from one another, and this organization brings us together,” he said.

Refuted accusations

During Monday’s public hearing, a few residents also accused the town of being out of compliance with the town charter, alleging that municipal revenue information had not been presented.

Manfreda, however, refuted those claims.

“The revenue numbers have been part of the discussion for months,” Manfreda said. “They’ve been in the department presentations and they’ve been discussed in a number of Board of Finance meetings. These numbers have been there.”

As for the town charter, Manfreda said it does not require detailed revenue analysis “unless the Board of Finance requests a separate analysis.” He also pointed out that a separate analysis was in fact “requested and given” during 2021-22 budget deliberations.

An in-person annual town meeting will take place in the new track and field training center at Bethel High School on April 5, followed by a referendum on April 20. Voters will vote on the referendum at their designated polling places.