Opinion: Some memorable budget moments

Bruce Kimmel

Norwalk Common Council member Bruce Kimmel just won election to the Board of Education.

I’ve had the privilege of serving on the Finance Committee of the Norwalk Common Council for 14 years; four as the only Democrat on the seven-member committee; eight as the Committee chairman; and two as a non-voting Council member when my ties to the local Democratic organization were, I guess you might say, strained.

The Council has eight Committees, and the affairs of its Finance Committee are generally dry – updating insurance policies, approving technology upgrades, monitoring tax collection rates, moving special appropriations to the full Council – not conducive to screaming headlines. However, for a few months each year, during discussions of the operating budget, all hell breaks loose.

I’ve had a fair number of memorable moments during these budget debates, three of which I’d like to describe. Maybe there’s some lesson hidden within these experiences; maybe not. But they may prove interesting.

Most Embarrassing Moment: I was first elected to the Council in 1997. Those days, the Council, per Charter, had to adopt a limit on spending by the end of January. Moreover, the Finance Committee never discussed what has come to be called the cap resolution, that is, the document that determines what the city can spend the next fiscal year. That discussion took place privately in the Council caucuses.

So I met with my three Democratic colleagues, and they advised me to “increase the budget” by $1 million when the full Council adopted the resolution. Unfortunately (for me), back then the actual resolution was much more complex than what we use today, and when I made my amendment to the Republican proposal (in a packed Council chamber), my 11 Republican colleagues sat there waiting for me to plug in the additional million and make all the necessary adjustments in the resolution.

But, for some reason, I had no idea how to do it. Undoubtedly feeling sorry for the new member – with all of two months experience on the Council – the Republicans advised me to call a brief recess. Embarrassed, I agreed. During the break I received a tutorial on how to make my amendment, which I did when we convened, and which was promptly voted down 11-4.

Most Inexplicable Moment: This time the action took place about five years ago in the Concert Hall, which was filled with parents who did not want the Council to adopt a spending cap that would have led to steep cuts in the Board of Education’s budget request. Speaker after speaker took the mic and pleaded with us to fully fund the request. At the time, the Council and the BOE were not on the best of terms when it came to fiscal matters.

So there we were on the stage listening to one articulate parent after another explain why the budget request should remain intact when, much to our surprise, a member of the BOE and a member of the BOE finance department, in succession, came to the mic and informed us they were still scrubbing the BOE budget and that very day had found about $600,000 in savings; and that this was on top of savings uncovered a few days earlier. What could we do after this admission that there was money to spare in the request? Of course, the request was cut. Members of the audience may have been more perplexed than we were.

Most Winged It Moment: Have no idea how I pulled this off; I think it was my second year on the Council. The Republicans ambushed the four Democrats by remaining silent when it was time to recommend a spending cap. Thus, as the sole Democrat on the Finance Committee, I made the recommendation. The Republicans pounced, demanding I explain exactly how the recommendation would impact taxes. Back then, we were not provided that kind of information (at least the Democrats weren’t), so I did some sort of mental gyration and came up with a number.

I was promptly informed my number was off (that taxes would be higher). But I kept my cool and disagreed. I was then told the formula proved me wrong. I wondered, what formula?  But I held my ground and accused my Republican colleague of making an obvious mathematical error. I maintained my composure and noticed some of the Republicans seemed to be a tad confused, not sure who to believe. My recommendation was of course voted down along party lines and, fortunately, the media did not deem the controversy worth further examination.

Now that my time on the Council is over, and I’m about to begin a four-year term on the BOE, I’d like to thank my current and former Council colleagues for their hard work, civility and friendship. It’s been a fascinating experience.

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