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Norwalk Council looks askance at BoE request in brief budget discussion

Norwalk Finance Director Bob Barron gives a brief explanation of his recommended 2017-18 operating budget to Common Council members Tuesday in City Hall.

Norwalk Finance Director Bob Barron gives a brief explanation of his recommended 2017-18 operating budget to Common Council members Tuesday in City Hall.

Updated, 4:17 p.m.: Document from Bob Barron inserted, along with clarification. Correction as to BoE increases, and statement about “10.6 versus 22.8.”

NORWALK, Conn. – Skepticism toward the Norwalk Board of Education was revealed Tuesday as Finance Director Bob Barron explained to Common Council members his figuring in coming up with a budget recommendation.

The BoE’s projected budget increase just 10 months ago was 3.7 percent in 2017-18 but now it’s 10.1 percent, Barron said, answering a question from Council member Steve Serasis (D-District A) at Tuesday’s Council meeting.

The BoE, in estimating last year what possible increase it would need this year, projected a $6.6 million jump, Barron said. Instead the BoE has requested $17,743,170 more for 2017-18 than it received for 2016-17.

Barron’s recommended 2017-18 budget “happens” to suggest the same number for the BoE as had been projected, $6.6 million, Barron said.

17-18-budget-book

“Anything north of what I am recommending really has to come at your level, the Council and the BET (Board of Estimate and Taxation), it would be such a drastic departure from what we have ever done before,” Barron said.  “I did not take their budget apart and try to rerun it, recalculate what they should be asking for. All I made my recommendation on is what I believe to be a fair and reasonable burden to the taxpayer.”

The Council will study the budget in depth next at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22, in the Council chambers, and hold a public hearing the next day, at 7 p.m. Feb. 22, Kimmel said. Then on Feb. 28 the Council will set a budget cap and send the entire mess to the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

Barron, as he has in previous years, presented the Council with a budget worksheet, showing his recommended budget and the effects that would be made should the Council decide to increase or decrease his recommended cap.

barron-budget-worksheets-17-0214

Barron’s recommendation is for a just-under-2 percent mill rate increase, made lower than it would be because of a 1.1 percent increase in the grand list. The total tax levy is 3.1 percent higher, but the grand list increase lessons the burden on individual taxpayers.

The total requests from city departments was $360,154,741, or $22,830,600 more than last year’s budget, he said.

“I have been here six years and the budget increases for the entire city have been between $8 (million) and $10 million, year after year. So, this is an incredible figure, this $22.8 million,” Barron said.

Later, he got to the 10.1 increase in the BoE request.

“Frankly, it’s significantly higher than any increase to the Board of Education in recent history,” Barron said. “In order to make room for that amount of money at the ‘Board of Ed,’ that 3.8 percent, and still keep the total expenditures at 3.1 percent, and mill rate at 2 percent, I cut all incremental requests from the city side, all additional programs … So, it’s a real bare bones budget for the city. It is a historically high appropriation recommendation for the Board of Education, which just happens to be equal to the amount that they had presented last year to the upcoming year, 2017-18.”

The BoE increases over the last three years:

  • 2016-17 3 percent
  • 2015-16 2.7 percent
  • 2014-15 2.6 percent

trend-norwalk

The BoE has said that $8.6 million of its increase is due to health insurance expenses. BoE Chairman Mike Lyons, speaking to the Council last week, said that if you take that out the requested increase is 5.2 percent.

Barron, questioned by Council Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large), said his recommended budget is $10.6 million more than last year, a $12.6 million gap from what it would be if all departments had their requests granted in full. That’s an important figure in calculating what impact there would be in raising the cap more than recommended.

“I don’t believe anything coming out of Hartford at this stage of the game,” Council member Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said, asking Barron for a list of assumptions he made in regard to state funding.

The Special Education grant proposed by Gov. Dannel Malloy would, at this stage, result in the BoE getting $1.7 million more from the state than it did last year, Barron said.

“If you consider my ($6.6 million) and the state’s ($1.7 million), that, if you were to approve, they’re really $8.3 million better off than they are in the current year,” Barron said.

Council member Faye Bowman (D-District B) asked Barron if he’d run the BoE’s cost per student, saying that she had studied the documents and, “Seemed like they were double-asking.”

Glad you asked, Barron said.

“We have repeatedly asked how many positions, how many full-time positions, does your budget request represent? No less than 10 times we’ve asked, even as recently as when I was printing the books on Monday, I gave (Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton) the opportunity to deliver. They have yet to deliver what their total number is,” Barron said.

He then cast doubt on “all sorts of numbers on tremendous growth,” the enrollment projections the BoE has put forth, which come from consultants Milone & McBroom.

“If you look at their own presentation, you’ll see that the amount (of students) they had planned for this year is 11,445,” Barron said.

boe-enrollment-page-fy-2017-18-recommended-operating-budget

The actual enrollment on Oct. 1 was 11,413, Barron said.

“When I made this (budget) presentation to leadership early this month I showed them my numbers, and it’s not my numbers, it’s their numbers: They had 30 less students that they reported. Less than what they budgeted for this year,” Barron said. “Then next year a gross increase of only 35 students. So, I am really troubled by a forecast of 1,000 more students. I know there’s 400 students in portable classrooms but their own numbers only said they are growing 35 year over year. What the most compelling thing to me was, if you look at the pre-K and K through 5 numbers, their projections show 189 less students next year.”

That’s in the context of the request to build two new schools, K-8, with a plan to renovate two elementary schools after those are built.

“Of course, 6-7-8 may indeed have some growth but their other numbers said they’re going to have 189 less students, K-8,” Barron said. “So, you all have your jobs cut out for you. There’s a lot of things that we have to understand about what’s in that request, from how many employees they’re requesting for $17.7 million, and what they are true enrollments are that is driving this large operating request.”

The discussion ended with skepticism from Council member Travis Simms (D-District B).

The BoE’s request is for about $17,000-$18,000 per student, but when you look at the figures and do the math, it’s $16,000-$17,000, he said.

“I don’t know how they come up with that projected number, what is actually on paper,” Simms said. “So, I was a little confused about that. I just think that’s a little disingenuous to all the Council members, a proposal like they have in front of us.”

14 comments

DrewT February 15, 2017 at 8:17 am

WOW!!! What a very sad day for Norwalks Children and future!! The CC & “I don’t support the BOE” Barron should really take a VERY hard look at themselves in the mirror! I have never read such crap coming out of people in leadership of this City! Did you all think The BOE just pulled numbers out of there backside the way some of you all think?!?!?! Maybe take a half a second and actually READ (Which our kids won’t be able too with 40 kids in the class coming to a school near you) and ask QUESTIONS to Dr Adamowski, TOM HAMILTON (Remember Him) he used be the most trusted man in Norwalk when he had Clueless Barron’s job. Or ask Mike Lyons I’m sure either one of them will be more then happier to explain 2+2 to you all!
All the CC and everyone heard is the BOE is asking for 10% WHICH IS NOT TRUE once you take our the HUGE BURDEN of the Health Insurance. This is the time to foge ahead with the growth plan laid out by Dr A which is why we hired him!!!! Or did the clueless CC forget that?! Or the CC likes to have a search every couple of years of another Superintendent?! This is why they leave, this is why this City can only take a half a baby step every couple of years. It’s t ime to put on our big boy pants, roll up the sleeves and look to the future that is staring at us in the face. Our children deserve everything we can give them to make them successful! What they don’t need is more WASTEFUL SPENDING FOR BANKRUPT POKO!!! Our Children this time come FIRST!! It’s time for this City to do right by our children and help secure the Cities future!!!

Donna February 15, 2017 at 9:23 am

Our children should indeed come first, DrewT. And before you can put the children first, it seems minimally prudent to know how many children there are. While the logic that nearly half the proposed increase is attributable to increases in health insurance costs, aren’t other government employees also insured? If so, why aren’t similar increase being sought throughout the entire budget and not just for the Ed budget? Also the CFO cannot provide hard numbers on the number of pupils budgeted for and real costs per pupil. So it certainly appears that the problems lie with the BOE’s budget request and lack of documentation on new pupils entering the system and new positions required as a result. I no longer have children in school. When I did have school age children, they were enrolled in Westport schools. The BOE often asked for aggressive budget increases. BUT they always had the numbers to back them up. As a Westport transplant, the relationship between school performance and property values is something I accept. So is the relationship between infrastructure and property values. The sidewalks are crumbling. Much of the retail space on Washington and Water Street is vacant. The same goes for vast stretches of West Ave, Main Street and Wall Street. The city just doesn’t appear to be open for business. Yes, the schools are a piece of the performance puzzle–an important piece and arguably the most important piece. BUT if the BOE is going to present an aggressive budget with a 10% increase, they’d better have the numbers to back this up. And based on what I just read, they don’t. Throwing money at the schools without evidence to back up the need isn’t prudent, and it won’t help property values the way it should.

Isabelle Hargrove February 15, 2017 at 10:10 am

Nancy – I am confused. Is Mr. Barron proposing a $6.6M increase or a $10.6M in answer to Mr. Kimmel’s question?

Also, do you have the details by department behind the requested $22M increase Barron mentioned?

What $ increase is Barron recommending for the total city budget? and do you have $ increase recommended by department as well as the projects they would support?

Thanks.

Lisa Thomson February 15, 2017 at 10:10 am

City Hall better get a grip and realize this is their problem as well! Last time I checked, I send my tax payment to the City of Norwalk not the BOE! These structural problems (healthcare, overcrowding) have been festering for years, so to suddenly act surprised is completely disingenuous. The politically motivated press conference by our illustrious leadership this week, blindsiding the BOE, only serves to punctuate the need for a citizen’s demand for charter revision, the hiring of a professional city manger- and the returning of the mayor’s office to a ceremonial one.

TYMR February 15, 2017 at 11:04 am

Thank goodness for Director Barron’s sanity check on school spending. He is by far the grown up in the room and the BOE should be ashamed of their antics against Mayor Rilling, Mr. Barron and Senator Duff. It has also become quite clear that the BOE is incapable of seeing the forest through the trees by perennially subordinating the city’s needs by injecting the old argument of for “the sake of the children” thus further strangulating city’s expense and taxpayers means. Their game is getting old and why did not they not adequately plan for the health insurance expense escalation or make prior year warnings prior to the system imploding? Also, it is embarrassing that board officials keep petitioning for higher mill rates year after year with little to show. In so many words put up or shut up and learn to work by the limited means of taxpayers and stop thinking residents have endless resources to fund your experiments. Enough!

Michael McGuire February 15, 2017 at 2:36 pm

Norwalk Leadership may want to embrace Norwalk’s untapped capacity to create value as a means of addressing the current and future economic shocks coming from Hartford. Consider the following three areas – Schools, Zoning Change, and a Train Station.

Schools (A way to cut costs and increase flexibility) – Lease space in one or more of Norwalk’s under-utilized or vacant office/commercial buildings. True it’s not “traditional” space, but given the price tags of $70 million or $117 million being thrown around, tax payers would likely embrace a bit of “out of the box” thinking. By renting we maintain flexibility, shed long-term capital costs, and defer upfront costs to more manageable annual payments.

And what landlord would not embrace a deal with a AAA credit tenant on a long-term lease. In today’s market the landlord would fund a large percentage of the build out costs. As a bonus, having the landlord do the build out work would ensure the most efficient use of capital.

Here is a list of potential candidates:
110 Richards Ave
45 Glover
230 East Ave
10 Norden Place
333 Wilson (former NCC)
360 Martin Luther King Blvd.

Zoning Change – A simple change in the zoning code from RI (Restricted Industrial) to pure Industrial along the Martin Luther King Boulevard would unlock a huge amount of Grand List value while creating much needed jobs by attracting business to this long stagnant area.

Wall Street Train Station – A simple, low cost means of boosting our Grand List, rejuvenate the downtown, stabilize commercial and apartment values going forward, alleviate a significant parking problem at SoNo and East Norwalk train stations. In addition this station lays the foundation for a true TOD (transit oriented development) district. As an added bonus it would solve the POKO and Duleep issues.

Call, write, or e-mail your district representative and insist upon urgency and action. Remember that you district representative does not have all the answers. However, they are the conduit of good ideas and consensus, and the mechanism for change. So please treat them with respect.

Nancy Chapman February 15, 2017 at 4:52 pm

Isabelle, Barron was referring to the requested increases of all the departments, not just the BoE request. I just fixed that. Deb is correct, the entire budget document is online. The increases per department is in a pdf originally attached to the story, and I just inserted a pdf of the entire document, in addition to adding a link to the city website.
Thank you.

Bill Nightingale Jr February 15, 2017 at 6:07 pm

“….blindsiding the BOE, only serves to punctuate the need for a citizen’s demand for charter revision, the hiring of a professional city manger- and the returning of the mayor’s office to a ceremonial one.”

The above sounds rather moving to a more authoritarian and less accountable system of government. What we need are elected and accountable people running this city. The professional city manager (not subject to re-election) makes me think of the Redevlopment Agency staff. Look how they have screwed up everything they’ve done yet continue to have job security for life and will continue to screw up until someone accountable stops them.

The BOE is an accountable body and I think they’re doing a terrific job – even though everyone may not agree with their budget request. At least it’s transparent.

So I don’t think we need professional city managers. We need good accountable elected leadership which should equal good governance.

cc-rider February 15, 2017 at 6:17 pm

Bill- 100% disagree. You seem to imply that a city manager would be some flunky with no experience or qualifications for that line of work. The authoritarian description is not found in many local towns with a city manager who are not being run into the ground. Accountable elected leadership is a Norwalk pipe dream with a Common Council that holds most of the cards.

Patrick Cooper February 15, 2017 at 6:41 pm

@Bill Nightingale – how exactly are these folks accountable now? Don’t take a snippet out of a post by the very thoughtful @Lisa Thompson and think that’s the full structure – it’s not. We would still have a elected common council – who by charter would be tasked with hiring (using a professional recruitment firm) a qualified, competent, experienced City Manager – who as an employee would report to the City via the council. Where on their collective resumes do we have anyone here who would even be interviewed?

Bill – answer me this? What has the current group done that would qualify for a time capsule entry? The Mall???? Why have they not addressed, nor fixed virtually any of the CORE issues? What would be wrong with competent operational management versus our current political partisanship that simply curries favor and power? I think you are misguided at best to not at least understand why a different form of government would liberate Norwalk from this petty see-saw that just screws the taxpayers – and with this stunt – their kids.

I’ll agree with you on one thing – we do have a decent BOE (even if all Mosby does is race-bait and abstain). It’s why this act of sabotage should compel every Norwalk parent to call the Mayors office and let our own Larry Vaughn know he should be scouting out apartments in Boca Del Vista starting in December. Given his 3 pensions – he can probably think waterfront.

Bill Nightingale Jr February 16, 2017 at 8:51 am

Patrick:

you refer to the mall. Someone else above refers to POKO. That is all the work of the Redevelopment Agency… to my point.

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NancyOnNorwwalk.com was conceived as the place to go for Norwalk residents to get the real, unvarnished story about what is going on in and around their city. NancyOnNorwalk does not intend to be a print newspaper online; rather, it exists to pull the curtain back and shine a spotlight on how Norwalk is run and what is happening regarding issues that have an impact on taxpayers’ pocketbooks and safety. As an independent site, NancyOnNorwalk’s first and only allegiance is to the reader.

About Nancy

Nancy came to Norwalk in September 2010 and, after reporting on Norwalk for two years for another company, resigned to begin Nancy On Norwalk so she engage in journalism the way it was meant to be done. She is married to career journalist Mark Chapman, has a son, Eric (the artist and web designer who built this website), and two cats – a middle-aged lady and a young hottie who are learning how to peacefully co-exist.