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Campaign trail: Norwalk Dems studying up, blasting Moccia on budget

Norwalk Board of Estimate and Taxation Feb. 12 2013 056

Norwalk Democratic mayoral hopeful Vinny Mangiacopra watched Finance Director Thomas Hamilton’s operating budget presentation at the Feb. 12 Board of Estimate and Taxation meeting.

NORWALK, Conn. – One of Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia’s attack phrases on his Democratic challenger in the last municipal election season won’t work this time around.

“I’ve never seen him at a meeting,” Moccia said in 2011 of former Town Clerk Andy Garfunkel, indicating that Garfunkel didn’t have the knowledge he needed to run city government.

Garfunkel, who has filed papers to again run for mayor, has been a regular attendee of Common Council meetings in the past few months, but he’s not the only Democratic Moccia-challenger who is looking in on how things work.

District D Chairman Vinny Mangiacopra, who also has filed papers to run for mayor, attended the Board of Estimate and Taxation meeting on Feb. 11, studiously taking notes as Finance Director Thomas Hamilton presented his recommended operating budget.

Wednesday night, former Norwalk Police Chief Harry Rilling — who hasn’t officially announced his intention to run for mayor — attended the first part of a superintendent search outreach meeting in City Hall before hustling upstairs to get to the Zoning Commission meeting, as he is a commissioner. “I think it’s good to hear what people have to say,” he said.

Common Councilman Matt Miklave — who has formed an exploratory committee in advance of maybe joining the mayor’s race —  attends more than his fair share of meetings, of course.

So Moccia can’t use that line again.

What do the Democrats think? Garfunkel didn’t return an email asking about the council meeting, but Mangiacopra had plenty to say about the BET and Norwalk’s budget.

“As the only candidate at the mayor’s presentation to the BET, I was struck by a few things: Taxes are going up, economic growth is stagnant, revenues are flat and optimism and a vision for the future are non-existent,” he said in an email. “Based on the presentation, it seems as if the finger pointing and chaos that ensued over the BOE shortfall (which the mayor was quoted saying caught him off guard) could have been for nothing.  All of the packed meetings, resolutions, cries for help and so on were unnecessary now that it looks as if the city told the BOE not to include the first repayment in its latest budget. Our community morale, property values and trust all suffered from this ridiculous exercise and the people of Norwalk are tired of it. They’re looking for positive change. I’m ready to tackle the tough issues in an urgent, honest, transparent and responsible way.”

Other budgetary thoughts

The busy Miklave continues to put out press releases, calling Norwalk’s budgeting process “broken.”

“We treat this critical function like an accounting exercise, instead of a process by which leaders make difficult choices among competing priorities,” he said in a release last week. “… We really need focus our attention on the 95 percent of the budget we keep, and not just the five percent of the budget we cut.  The overwhelming majority of our $300 million dollar budget continues to be spent without examination. We can absolutely do this better.”

Miklave questioned whether the city is funding things the schools need or picking a number that works and then making the math fit that expectation.

“Year in and year out, we continue to underfund our priorities, because we do not seek out the information we need to make the tough decisions up-front. Once the budget cap is set, will we be confronting more cuts to programs that Norwalkers care about? Will we once again see a budget that pits one group of taxpayers against another? Or do we go back and conduct a rigorous review of each item and ask if it is contributing to Norwalk according to our priorities?”

He added that this kind of review might have prevented the havoc that ensued last spring when the BOE discovered a $4 million shortfall.

Mangiacopra was the only one of his announced competitors who returned an email looking for comment.

“It’s a ton of words that says nothing about what he would do or what measures he has taken in all his time voting on budgets while on the council,” he said of the 429-word press release.

What about that car tax issue?

Moccia has been vocal this past week in his opposition to Gov. Dannel Malloy’s proposal to eliminate taxes on vehicles valued at less than $28,500 and to exempt the first $20,000 for those vehicles over $28,500.

“If we don’t get the car tax we may as well shut the city down,” Moccia said to a colleague Tuesday before the BOE meeting started.

Again, Mangiacopra was the only candidate who returned an email asking for comment.

“While there is no question that tax relief is needed on many levels, as mayor I would have similar feelings to the mayor on this issue,” he said. “However, it’s February and the legislature will ultimately decide on whether the proposal has legs or not. From a budget standpoint, I can certainly understand the mayor’s anxiety about this, but in no way would I use this as a scare tactic and argue the alternative being ‘you might as well shut the city down.’ That kind of approach compounds the issue and makes more clear our need for fresh and innovative approaches to the way the city conducts itself.”

Garfunkel: Moccia responsible for stagnant grand list

While Garfunkel didn’t respond directly to the email about car taxes, he did attack Moccia with a press release the following day.

“It’s the mayor’s job, as our chief elected official, to work to improve the city, not just in the months leading up to an election, but every single day,” he said. “If Norwalk’s mayor had been doing this, he wouldn’t be left questioning how we will adequately fund our schools, or bemoaning the lack of growth in Norwalk’s grand list and shrinking state aid.

“Look at our main competitor to the south.  Stamford aggressively courts new businesses and employers. It strengthens its commercial tax base and revitalizes its downtown, while here in Norwalk our ‘leadership’ muddles along, claiming victory when there finally a sign of movement on a long-stalled project like Waypointe, or an existing business like Pepperidge Farm grows.  Holding onto your existing base is the bare minimum. How is it that a Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s leading hedge funds, leaves Westport, leapfrogging right over Norwalk to build its new corporate headquarters in Stamford?”

Moccia is to blame, he said.

“If our city government had been run smarter and more effectively over the last seven years, we wouldn’t be in this boat.  Nobody else is going to solve our problems for us.  The state is in its own fiscal crisis.  Norwalk needs to get its fiscal house in order through a coordinated, sustained and effective program of economic development.”

7 comments

Lisa Thomson February 22, 2013 at 7:42 am

I agree with Mr. Mikkave about ignoring 95% of the budget process. Public education needs to reinvent itself for the 21st Century. However, how does one restructure everything that hangs off of the classroom teacher, when the everything else is collectively bargained for and/or work rules have been set before the Stone Age or at least before technology could streamline them. Approximately 1/3 of the budget is for classroom teachers and the rest is for everything else. That’s a problem. The everything else is bankrupting us. Job descriptions need to be rewritten. New positions identified and others eliminated. Bring it on Mr. Miklave, I’d love to hear yours and Mr. Ditrio’s ideas. What we have in Norwalk is not sustainable.

oldtimer February 22, 2013 at 9:43 am

Surely there are economies that could be found if the City and the BoE got together on some common problems. Both need insurance, for example. Both purchase quantities of similar products. One purchasing agent, chasing the best values, could save a lot. It could be done without either side giving up control of what they need to control. Now the BoE runs a seperate government, for all practical purposes, funded by the City. There are ways to get better value for taxpayer dollars.

Phil_M February 22, 2013 at 9:48 am

If Mr. Miklave thinks the process is broken, where is his solution? What would he do differently? Break state law and the charter? When he is mayor, is he going to give the council line item control of the budget? It’s easy to criticize, harder to manage, and much harder still to actually improve things. We see the way Mr. Miklave goes.

Mr. Mangiacopra seems to like the way the mayor handled the crisis last year. Unless he is serious in accusing the entire BOE, the superintendent and the COO of complicity in a large conspiracy to manufacture the crisis. If I remember, there was no real need for concern, the mayor did effectively move the items through the BET and handled it very well. It was Mr. Miklave who made it into a crisis by staging rallies and misleading people into thinking they should be concerned. Oh and now it makes sense why he did that…

SB February 22, 2013 at 10:21 am

Whatever happened to the concept of zero-based budgeting? Or at least examining all discretionary spending. Regarding comments about the BOE $4M shortfall, I think this problem resulted from not having a Financial Director for several years. The blame for this should be shared equally by both parties.

Joe Espo February 22, 2013 at 10:37 am

All of a sudden, little Vinny is a budget expert? Andy blames the Mayor for a stagnant grand list? This is too much . Tell you what, guys. Blame Miklave for delaying 95/7 all through the years when financing money was easy. That screwed up the grand list big-time.

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