The town should allow grant-making agencies that raise private dollars to fund nonprofit organizations that serve residents, rather than putting that cost on local taxpayers, New Canaan’s highest elected official said last week.
Other Fairfield County towns do not make the smaller grants that New Canaan has given to agencies such as the Child Guidance Center and, more recently, Family Centers, according to First Selectman Dionna Carlson.
New Canaan needs to “look at where are we getting our bang for buck as a municipality, and what are we using that we need to fund,” Carlson said during a Jan. 23 Board of Selectmen meeting, held at Town Hall and via videoconference.
Though the community decided to enter into a partnership with the New Canaan Community Foundation and Silver Hill Hospital to fund the successful Urgent Assessment Program, “I’m not quite sure what we are doing with all of these small donations to these other agencies,” she added.
“My only argument is that if it truly is a really beneficial nonprofit that many people value, they will write checks for it,” Carlson said.
She added, “I’ve talked to other first selectmen and we are one of the only towns that does this. And their attitude is: The state pays these agencies for our referrals, so they are incented to take our clients. So we don’t need to incent them as a town to take our clients.”
The comments came during a fiscal year 2025 budget presentation from Bethany Zaro, director of the town’s Department of Human Services. Zaro is proposing an overall spend of $718,743 for the department—an increase of about .1% over current spending. Within that overall figure are recommendations for stipends for a number of nonprofit organizations, including Getabout ($35,000), Kids In Crisis ($144,000), New Canaan CARES ($8,000), Child Guidance Center ($2,500), Domestic Violence Crisis Center ($2,500), Meals On Wheels ($2,500), Community Programs ($2,500) and Family Centers ($2,500).
Zaro said the request for Kids In Crisis is up from the $96,000 in the adopted budget for FY24 because it includes paying for half of a Teen Talk counselor at Saxe Middle School for next academic year. The Board of Education decided to allocate ARPA funds to that position for two years (there’s already one at New Canaan High School), though that funding will run out, Zaro said. Asked where she’d get the money for the other half of the position, Zaro said grants and other sources.
The selectmen called for details and metrics on the middle school Teen Talk counselor, such as the number of kids served.
Selectman Amy Murphy Carroll said, “We have no idea how many people are tapping it. We still need details.”
With respect to the grants that New Canaan has made in the past to the agencies, Zaro described the practice as “the cost of doing business.”
“It’s not the cost of doing business,” she said. “I know that’s what’s being said and communicated. But in talking to every other town first selectman in Fairfield County, this is not a cost of doing business—it’s a generosity of the community.”
Zaro said she was presenting to the Board on behalf of the Health & Human Services Commission that oversees her department and “how they feel the community will benefit.”
“However, I will take the lead,” Zaro said. “I just want to say, being director of Human Services, I want to maintain the generosity that the town wants to give. But I also understand the fiscal responsibility.”
Carlson said in response, “We are an unbelievably generous town.”
Selectman Steve Karl told Zaro that if there was ever a time she needed to come in for a special appropriation for anything, “we are here.”
The Board of Finance is scheduled to take up the budget from the selectmen next week.