The New Canaan Town Council at its most recent meeting voted 11-1 to approve a round of American Rescue Plan Act or “ARPA”-funded expenditures totaling $2.05 million.
The package of one-time expenditures includes $725,050 for bonuses for town and school employees, in recognition of their work on the “front lines” during the pandemic, and another $1.33 million for various town projects, according to information shared at the Town Council’s Dec. 15 meeting at Town Hall.
The Board of Selectmen had approved the expenditures earlier this month, the Board of Finance the night prior to the Town Council meeting.
The suite of initiatives is part of $6 million in total ARPA funds that the town expects to receive from the federal government, to be distributed in multiple rounds.
The employee bonuses include $547,300 for school district employees, including roughly 430 certified staff and 270 non-certified staff, and $177,750 for 240 town workers, including firefighters and New Canaan Emergency Medical Services personnel.
The funding package also includes $300,000 for completion of greenlink sidewalks, $250,000 for converting some bathrooms at Waveny for year-round use, $250,000 for a backup generator for critical facilities and $250,000 for the Waveny Conservancy.
It also includes $60,000 for “Live New Canaan,” a marketing effort managed by a Darien-based company and overseen by the New Canaan Board of Realtors that includes email blasts, a website and social media postings. Earlier this month, a report on NewCanaanite.com raised questions about the effort’s data as presented by the marketing firm.
During the Town Council meeting on Dec. 15, Vice Chair Mark Grzymski noted that the $60,000 expenditure for LiveNewCanaan “was not on our original priority list [due to some questions regarding the program] but we got some additional color, which was needed—and obviously the subcommittee has moved all of these things forward.”
He referred to an email sent to the Town Council hours prior to the meeting by Lori Kelly of the Board of Realtors that NewCanaanite.com obtained through a public records request, as well as an ad hoc committee of Town Council and Board of Finance members looking at ARPA allocations that had met the prior day.
At that Dec. 14 joint committee meeting, members said the group’s role was to move the selectmen’s recommended ARPA allocations forward “as a block,” and leave it to the full funding bodies to make decisions on individual items. One committee member, Cristina A. Ross, said the New Canaanite report was a “disparaging attempt” because the “Live New Canaan” marketing effort is “competition” for the news site. After the meeting, the New Canaanite filed a public records request for Ross’s written communications for the prior two weeks with Nancy Greenspon, the Board of Realtors member behind the “Live New Canaan” effort, including emails, texts and Facebook messages (the two are Facebook friends), and Ross said that she’d had no such communications.
At the Dec. 15 meeting, one member of the Town Council who has spoken in favor of “Live New Canaan” in the past as a member of a tourism committee in town, Rita Bettino, cited data shared by the Darien marketing firm, Noble House Media, during committee meetings in the past.
Elected to the Town Council in an uncontested race last month, Bettino said she has “over 25 years of marketing experience.” She called the marketing effort a “very powerful tool to help drive people to New Canaan to support our local businesses—and to prop up our property values.”
Bettino said the recent article in NewCanaanite.com included “inaccuracies.”
“Specifically, it mentioned an email list of 10,000 people but failed to mention an email list of 20,000 people that includes people outside of New Canaan,” she said, adding that the goal is to generate interest in New Canaan’s real estate to potential buyers outside of town.
In addition, the article “disparaged” the click through rates of “Live New Canaan” social media campaigns, Bettino said, which were at 4.32% and 4.66%, according to slides presented by Timothy McDermott, of Noble House Media. Like McDermott, Bettino said click through rates of 4.32% and 4.66% are as good “if not better than industry standards.”
“So, if you understand the full context of what Live New Canaan is and what it could be, it’s a very valuable tool for us to be using and improving upon,” Bettino said.
The Board of Realtors went even further in its email to the Town Council. At one point Kelly said of “Live New Canaan” that “Our Instagram has the highest number of followers in town!”—a demonstrably false assertion (the New Canaan Police Department, for example, has 1,649 more followers on the social media platform, a difference of 71%).
Kelly also said in the email, “In the past 18 months, #livenewcanaan has been a marketing lifeline for hundreds of businesses and non-profits during the Covid downturn, providing search visibility on Google, widely viewed social media posts, newsletter marketing, PR and more.”
Municipal officials began soliciting funding requests for New Canaan’s $6 million ARPA windfall over the summer, and town funding bodies subsequently held public hearings. Organizations listed as making requests that were not met by the Town Council’s allocation include VFW Post 653, Powerhouse Theatre, New Canaan Nature Center, New Canaan Police and Silver Hill Hospital.
On Dec. 13, the town announced that it’s working with the New Canaan Community Foundation to vet such requests from nonprofit organizations. It’s unclear how much ARPA funding will be available through that channel. The Board of Realtors, itself a nonprofit organization, was not steered toward that vetting process. The “Live New Canaan” line item didn’t appear on a spreadsheet for ARPA funding in September or October, then showed up on a public packet for the selectmen’s Nov. 16 meeting with the $60,000 earmark and a note that called it a “fully integrated marketing and promotional digital platform for the town.”
The Board of Realtors in the past three years has spent more than $200,000 on the campaign, Greenspon has said. Greenspon at the Dec. 14 Board of Finance meeting said she worked in PR for decades. The organization in January named Greenspon “Realtor Citizen of the Year” for her work on “Live New Canaan.”
Town Council members voting in favor of the approximately $2 million tranche in ARPA allocations included Chair Steve Karl, Grzymski, Vice Chair Penny Young and Councilmen Maria Naughton, Robin Bates-Mason, Ross, Tom Butterworth, Mike Mauro, Bettino, Luke Kaufman and Hilary Ormond. Councilman Kimberly Norton voted against.
Although the Town Council approved the funding for the bonuses for Town and Board of Education employees, what the bonus structure will be (i.e., the size of the bonus per employee) is still to be finalized. For now, the Board of Selectmen, Board of Education and the subcommittee that worked on the ARPA spending package have decided to award bonuses of $1,000 for each certified Board of Education employee and $500 for each non-certified Board of Education employee – while Town employees will receive a bonus of $750 each.
However, not all town officials are in agreement with this bonus structure. During the meeting, Ross said she wanted to see the bonus amount given to town employees to be the same as the amount given to school employees.
“What I would like to vote for is, the total number, but adjusting the 240-plus town employees and bring that bonus structure to equal that of the Board of Education, which is $1,000 per person. Wherever that is taken out from the list,” Ross said.
In response to Ross’ suggestion, Karl clarified that “tonight we are looking at these numbers just as they are. We are not going to be adding anything at this juncture—and leave it up to the boards to get this right.”
“But Steve, we are voting only on the total—and the way that it is appropriated, each line item can be adjusted,” Ross added. “So, wherever that money goes to, I think that the bonus for the town employees should be the same.”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi, who was in attendance, explained that certified school staff (teachers, department heads, etc.) are getting $1,000 each while non-certified staff (custodians, maintenance, cafeteria staff, etc.) are getting $500 because the certified staff had a “different experience” dealing with the Covid crisis than did the non-certified staff.
“We felt that was an important distinction to make,” Luizzi said.
Bettino said she was wondering why that same principle wasn’t also applied to the town employees.
“I’m wondering why we didn’t do that for the town employees, as well,” Bettino said. “Because I think – to your point – you painstakingly figured out who should be getting the $1,000 and who should be getting the $500. Not because anyone didn’t do a good job but because you didn’t want to diminish those who went above and beyond. So you decided to give them more. That’s what a manager does. You figure out who should be getting more.”
Bettino said in her view it “diminishes the town employees” to give all of them $750 when their experiences may have also varied.
“I don’t think everyone should be getting the same trophy,” Bettino said.
She asked if it might be possible to “give everyone $500, so that they have something for Christmas, and then decide in January who should get the extra $500 or $250.”
Karl, however, said the matter of the bonus structure had already been debated and analyzed in detail by the other town boards and can be determined after the funds are approved. While he agreed that there is more to discuss, he also wanted to “respect the [approval] process.”
First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, who was in attendance during the Town Council meeting, said part of the reasoning behind the $750 for town employees was that, on average, they make only about two thirds of what school system employees make, which, in effect, makes the job of determining the bonuses “a bifurcated process.”
Naughton suggested that the town consider giving all employees—both Town and Board of Education – the same bonus to make it even and avoid any conflicts.
“I’m not normally an ‘Everyone Gets a Trophy’ type of person,” Naughton said. “This is just a suggestion: Why not take the whole amount and divide it among all the people? So everyone gets the same amount?”
“I think it’s actually more difficult to decide who worked harder – and it could come back to you…” she added.