By Matt Miklave, Council Member (District A)
NORWALK, Conn. — On Tuesday, the Common Council completed its first step in the 2013-14 budget process — setting the cap on the amount the city of Norwalk can spend during the fiscal year. Adopting the recommendations of the Moccia administration, the council authorized the city to spend up to $311 million; almost one-third of a billion dollars.
This was the eighth time I have voted to set the budget cap. This is also the eighth year I have publicly and privately urged the city to adopt significant budget reforms. Yet, the faults with our budget process are not unique to Norwalk. Other cities across the United States have overcome them by adopting a common sense approach to budgeting.
Adopting their approach here can save significant tax dollars and improve performance. Here’s how:
1. Stop Politicizing the Budget Decision-Making Process. For the past eight years, the Moccia administration has alleged that it cannot fully and adequately fund the Board of Education’s reasonable budget requests and simultaneously fund the rest of the city’s needs. This claim suggests an “either-or” choice. Yet, in this year’s budget, the Moccia administration used non-BOE funds to pay for police to protect the schools. This proves that when the administration wants to fund a priority item, it uses the entire budget to find a way. In a non-election year, it did not believe the school budget sufficiently important to tackle that divide. (Last year, the BOE closed middle school libraries because the city refused to honor the unanimous, bipartisan council resolution to use $1.8 million from fund balance to close the gap.) The change we need starts here. We are one city. We have one tax base. We have to think of the entire budget as one and weigh relative priorities over that entire budget.
2. Examine What We Keep, Not Just What We Cut. Good budgets reflect the policy choices and the values of the city. Yet, every year, Norwalk approaches the budget process as if it is an exercise in accounting. The entire eight-month budget cycle is spent focusing a laser on the 5 percent of the budget we cut, rather than 95 percent of the budget we keep. The vast majority of Norwalk’s $311 million budget is spent without considering what goals we are trying to accomplish, whether the way in which we spend these funds furthers these goals, whether other methods could achieve better results more efficiently or whether the taxpayers should be providing that program or service at all. We do not have unlimited resources or an unlimited ability to tax our residents. We have to have real discussions on how to best use what we have. This means setting priorities for the city as a whole and making difficult choices between “needs” and “wants.”
3. Set Performance Standards for Every Program and Service. Once we agree on the programs and services the city needs to provide, we will need to set real performance standards for them. Managers in any good workplace set standards for performance by their employees. These goals must be meaningful and must measure success against the goals we set for ourselves as a city. The Moccia administration has done little but play lip service to the concept. For example, in the budget, the Fire Department proclaimed that Norwalk’s firefighters battled exactly 157 structure fires in each of the last three fiscal years! What are the odds that Norwalk had the exact same number of buildings catch fire in each of the last three years? Clearly, these figures were inserted in the budget with little care whether they were accurate or even reviewed. We need to get real about how we measure success.
4. Conduct a Regular, Rigorous Review of Performance and Publish the Results. Setting standards for the performance of every service and program is a necessary step. The next step requires regular review of performance against those standards to ensure that departments are given the facts needed to accomplish meaningful improvement. This is the process pioneered by New York’s Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton with respect to crime prevention, and perfected by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley when he was mayor of Baltimore. O’Malley’s weekly “hot seats” led the way to massive changes in the way services were provided to Baltimore residents. Norwalk’s City Hall must publish the results regularly so that all Norwalkers have the opportunity to measure success (or lack of success) and pressure leaders to improve performance.
5. Make Tough Choices Because Change Requires Leaders Lead. With established performance standards and published performance measures, public officials will finally be able to do the “heavy lifting” required. Stephen Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis and one of President George W. Bush’s policy advisers, calls it “budget triage.” If the program or service works, leave it alone. If the program or service does not work, focus on fixing it. If the program or service cannot be fixed or is a low priority on the list, defund it and move the resources to other areas or return it to the taxpayers. Eliminating programs is difficult, especially if the program being cut is one you happen to like. But we have to recognize that limited budgets require leaders to make difficult choices.
Change does not come easy. But by following this five-point plan for budget reform, Norwalk can spend its resources more wisely, do more, and improve the level of service we provide to the public.