Updated, 1:35 p.m.: Comments from Laoise King.
NORWALK, Conn. – Two proposals are being developed to provide more than a “zero” budget increase to Norwalk Public Schools, Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said Tuesday.
Adamowski said there had been a “constructive” meeting Tuesday afternoon in Mayor Harry Rilling’s office, where, “We had a very frank discussion over how the finance director has presented the budget.”
Finance Director Bob Barron’s recommended 2018-19 operating budget features a 1.9 percent mill rate increase, with increases in city-side budgets but flat funding for the Board of Education. Barron has explained that the Common Council should add whatever it thinks is necessary to fund the BoE, at a level it thinks taxpayers can afford.
Adamowski charged at Tuesday’s BoE meeting that Barron has taken “all the revenue” to make it look like the city’s budget is only increasing 1.9 percent. It would be 5.2 percent, the same as has been requested by the Board of Education, without “all of the revenue” going to the city, he said.
Rilling has promised to provide the Board with an unaudited fund balance, the amount of money in the “Rainy Day Fund,” Adamowksi said.
Barron has factored a $2 million drawdown from the Rainy Day Fund into his recommended budget and called that the most the city can afford, in accordance to the Board of Estimate and Taxation’s policy of maintaining a fund balance equal to the median of Triple A bond-rated Connecticut municipalities.
Barron’s budget also factors in $3 million from the insurance fund, wiping out its surplus, and $2.6 million in savings in the pension fund.
The BoE last year moved its employees to a state health insurance plan, Connecticut Partnership 2.0.
Adamowski said Tuesday that part of the pension fund savings come from NPS non-certified employees.
Adamowski said that be and Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King had made proposals in the Mayor’s meeting.
“Although I disagree with his characterization of the city side of the budget – I don’t think it’s constructive to get into that debate. It does not move the conversation forward or lead to a solution,” King wrote in a Tuesday evening email.
“Here is what I can confirm:
“The Mayor, Superintendent, BOE leadership, Council leadership and staff met today to talk about the budget. We left the meeting with the following understanding:
“A) this is not an issue of City vs. BOE. We have the same constituencies and concerns. We agreed it is not helpful or productive to trade barbs or try to mischaracterize each other’s motives in the press or online. We agreed to work collaboratively on a solution. The Mayor has been consistent in his support of the BOE and his desire to have a good working relationship with the Board. BOE leadership and Dr. A are also committed to working with the city. We all intend to continue to work toward a mutually agreeable budget solution. We all support the BOE’s strategic operating plan and are impressed with its results so far. We all want to fund the BOE’s proposed budget at the highest level possible. Additionally, it is important for all of us (BOE and City side) to consider the impact on tax payers – particularly with decreased state funding looming, a revaluation coming up, and the state’s MBE requirement – all in the context of the new SALT legislation.
“B) BOE and City Staff are meeting later this week to hash out a mutually agreeable proposal to put to the Council and BET.
“I think it’s premature to talk about the discussions on potential solutions. Two ideas were floated in the meeting – but we have not crunched numbers on either yet and I’m sure there are many other possible ways to get to a good result. That is what staff will be figuring out in the next day or two. I will be sure to keep you posted.”
“Both of (the proposals), I think, have promise, at least in terms of treating the school district better than the budget director’s recommendation,” Adamowski said.
The Council is holding a public hearing on the operating budget Thursday, and voting on a budget cap Tuesday.
“It is unlikely that the recommendations will be finished and the Mayor make a decision before Thursday, but we are all cognizant that this has to be done before next Tuesday night,” Adamowski said. “So, I think everyone is shooting for Friday or Monday in terms of an agreement that hopefully we can all get behind.”
“My proposal shares the revenue,” Adamowski said. “It would enable us to use the money that has not been disclosed so far in the Rainy Day Fund that’s unaudited. Then that gets both entities to a position where they have to make some reduction in order to have a 1.9 percent tax increase, which the Mayor indicated is his goal. So, I would say I am cautiously optimistic following this meeting.”
“I just want to applaud you for working so closely with the mayor, which has been challenging in other years, and point out that it’s not two budgets,” Board member Barbara Meyer Mitchell said. “The school budget is part of the city budget. It’s absurd to treat it as something separate. So, I am very heartened to hear that we are looking at it from that lens.”
The idea that it’s one budget was the theme of Rilling’s meeting, Adamowski replied.
In another part of City Hall, Barron was speaking to Planning Commissioners.
The Tuesday afternoon meeting concerned the BoE’s request of $1.2 million for continued Special Education development, he said.
The Rainy Day Fund was also a topic, with Planning Commissioner Nora King asking why the $5 million building permit fee paid by GGP for The SoNo Collection was “shoved into the Rainy Day Fund” instead of using it for sidewalks or ballparks.
“The fund balance only increases if your revenues exceed what you anticipated, or if your expenses are less than what you anticipated,” Barron replied, explaining that the $5 million was anticipated and built into this year’s budget.
“I don’t anticipate adding anything to the fund balance because I have known intergovernmental revenue shortfalls,” Barron said, explaining that the state has announced a $2.9 million cut, which was adopted into the Norwalk budget.
The hope is to have “a neutral, or no reduction or no gains, in the fund balance,” he said.
Not only that, but the fund balance is meant to be a percentage of the operating budget, and as the operating budget increases the fund balance must also rise, he said, explaining that, “as the expenses go up, to maintain the same percentage of fund balance to those revenues you have to add to the fund balance.”