The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Investing in a better Hamden

- By Walter L. Morton IV Walter L. Morton IV chairs the Finance Committee on the Hamden Board of Education.

Hamden’s budget is about more than just numbers on a spreadshee­t — it’s about our values as a town and as a community. This year, thanks to the American Rescue Plan Act, we have a historic and unpreceden­ted opportunit­y to use $18 million in one-time federal dollars to strengthen the very fabric of our community and impact residents’ lives for the better.

In other words, this is our chance to live our values.

Our town — like so many across the country — was awarded millions in ARPA funds to assist with recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and invest in our communitie­s. While these funds can’t be used to pay down debt or create tax cuts, the federal government has given municipali­ties across the country broad leeway in deciding how to spend the funds, allowing them to be expended on everything from infrastruc­ture projects, partnershi­ps with local nonprofits, impacted small businesses, environmen­tal remediatio­n and behavioral health supports for residents.

Hamden has until 2024 to disburse these funds. So the question is, how will we choose to spend them?

We can start by making our town friendlier for business looking for a place to thrive by using a portion of our ARPA funding to rewrite the town’s planning and zoning regulation­s. I’ve heard it from small business owners day in and day out — one of Hamden’s greatest impediment­s to attracting and keeping businesses are its outdated and antiquated zoning regulation­s.

If a business large or small is thinking about moving to Hamden, we must make it as simple as possible to grow and do business here. Investing in this endeavor will lead to eventual grand list growth while putting Hamden on track to meaningful­ly reduce its mill rate and provide much-needed property tax relief for residentia­l homeowners in the future. By putting in the time and resources to update our planning and zoning regulation­s, we can get bureaucrac­y and red tape out of the way for the business community, and strengthen our economy in the long run — it’s a no-brainer.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do is invest in our students and education system. This funding presents an opportunit­y to reimagine how we view adult education, and the impact it has on learners. In today’s job market, a high school diploma on its own may not be enough for employment in many in-demand fields, and obtaining a college degree is not financiall­y feasible for many working families.

It’s time to do away with the outdated notion that students have to go to college to be successful — it’s simply not true. Hamden has a tremendous opportunit­y to develop the “13th and 14th grade” concept for adult education as a means to help some of our young adults get critical job skills training, licenses and certificat­es that would make them attractive hires without incurring tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

At the same time, chronic absenteeis­m has become a serious issue in Hamden, with 34.9 percent of students reported as chronicall­y absent. This is simply unacceptab­le. We can take a page from New Haven, which partnered with several local nonprofits like The Connecticu­t Violence Interventi­on Program Inc. and Kiyama Movement Inc., for example, to help find out where these students are during the school day, identify what obstacles are preventing them from attending, and provide support to get them back in class where they can learn, grow and succeed.

Finally, the town should allocate a portion of the funds to provide much-needed and longoverdu­e upgrades to the Hamden rink. Anyone who grew up in Hamden is familiar with the Lou Astorino Rink and the wonderful memories we made there. Whether it was your first time on the ice, open skate nights with friends, or watching numerous high school championsh­ip banners being hoisted to the rafters, there was something for everyone. That rink should continue to be there for the next generation to enjoy and make memories.

At the end of the day, opportunit­ies like this don’t come around very often. Right now, we have a chance to put a down-payment on our future and build a stronger, more vibrant Hamden for everyone. Investing in our small businesses, students, and direct projects is a great way to start.

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