Updated, 1:33 p.m.: Clarification, David Davidson spoke as a citizen.
NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Common Council members on Tuesday stood behind the City’s massive investment in school renovations and new construction, over the objections of one citizen.
David Davidson warned, as Tuesday’s Council meeting began, that while the school program has “overwhelming support” from citizens it’s going to increase the city’s debt and is “starving” the City’s transportation and recreational budgets. Council members later lauded the proposed $52.5 million capital budget as reflective of Norwalk’s priorities, including parks and paving, and then approved the plan.
Davidson is a Planning Commissioner, but addressed the council as a citizen. He said he “shudders” to hear that the Board of Education is overbudget for its school projects, but Mayor Harry Rilling expressed confidence that the budget shortfalls will be worked out.
Norwalk Public Schools is at least $18 million short in its plans for school construction, in spite of an additional $20 million planned in the capital budget, Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis said at the March 25 BoE Facilities Committee meeting.
“We are short on every front,” Barbis said. “The capital budget is about to get wrapped up. At this point, we don’t have enough money to proceed with all these projects (and the applications must be made by June 30).”
“We believe that by doing some different types of things, that we’re going to be able to reconcile that shortfall,” Rilling said Tuesday. “And we’re going to make sure that we can get these projects under way so that our young people can have schools, our teachers can have schools of which they can be proud.”
The budget includes $23.5 million for school construction, including $9 million for the Jefferson Elementary renovation, $9 million for the Chestnut Street school renovation and $2.67 million for facilities improvements.
The City is ignoring the needs of its young people by not focusing on parks, Davidson said.
“Tonight, I ask you to rethink and not rubber stamp the capital budget,” Davidson said. “… Look into it yourself and convince the people of this great city, that you are an independent legislative body elected to represent their interests and will not permit this sacrifice of the other needs of the city by continuing to support an ever increasing program that the city can ill afford.”
Davidson is something of an outlier on the Planning Commission; his opposition to the school construction resulted in combative conversations at the Feb. 19 Commission meeting, where no one agreed with his sentiments.
“It’s obvious that I’m not a rubber stamp, the way my voting record is,” Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) said Tuesday. “But I said from day one when we first started talking about expanding our school system and building new schools, I was 100% behind it, back when others were not.”
There are a lot of good things to talk about in the capital budget, Planning Commitee Chairman John Kydes (D-District C) said. “We are not just getting by but we are raising the bar and improving the quality of life for Norwalk residents.”
In addition to the school investments, there’s $5 million for street paving and nearly $1 million for sidewalks, he said, which exceeds the $4 million that Stamford is spending on paving.
Kydes touted money to help the Norwalk Public Library modernize and upgrades to school fields. He listed:
- $1.5 million for the West Rocks soccer complex
- $95,000 to design a Broad River baseball complex
- $175,000 for restrooms at Nathan Hale
- $45,000 to design a turf softball field
“As someone with their children in the leagues, in various leagues around the city, I am very proud of this,” Kydes said.
“I think this is a very good budget. It keeps the city really moving forward in a positive way,” Common Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) said.
The $2.5 million budgeted for the Lockwood Mathews Mansion Museum will be added to a $5 million state grant the mansion has already received, to complete mechanical upgrades and add safety systems, Livingston said. “This is a big deal. Without it the mansion would not be able to take advantage of that grant. So it’s going to be a big improvement to the building, allowing more people to use it year-round.”
The softball field money is a “a small item but it shows that the commitment of the city to athletic fields throughout the city,” he said.
There’s money for new software to help with issuing permits. “A lot of people have asked about how we can streamline the city’s permitting process,” Livingston commented. “And this is software that is used by some of the largest cities in the country, which enables a much smoother process, which does not require the time commitment of our volunteers and just makes it easier for everybody.”
“I don’t think that anybody here considers themselves a rubber stamp but I think that one of the things I look at for any government, you can tell their priorities by where they spend their money,” Council member Colin Hosten (D-At Large) said. Hosten noted money for stormwater drainage, schools and the library.
The school numbers “could be very overwhelming,” Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) said, emphasizing that Livingston’s Land Use and Building Management Committee scrutinizes the numbers every month.
“We are well aware of the cost, how money is being spent… there is a level of confidence as we look at these projects and how they are progressing,” Burnett said.
The budget shortfalls are disappointing, Hempstead said.
“I understand the strain on the budget with that, but I think investing in our schools … is the right way to go and not the wrong way to go, because at the end of the day, that increases our values, of our homes and our quality of life in the city of Norwalk,” he said.
“I think that we put together a budget that not only works on our schools, but if you look at historically, what we have done for the recreational fields and recreational programs throughout the city, most people would be amazed,” Rilling said.
Rilling, after the meeting, said he’s been working with Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski and Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton “to figure out where we can make some adjustments and changes,” given the shortfalls.
“I am looking at reconciling unexpended capital funds that are in projects that have been on the books for 7-8-9-10 years, where there’s money left over that the funds that haven’t been fully expended but the projects have been completed,” Rilling said. “Other funds that might be available, where the project is no longer needed, and there might be funds sitting there. I try to reconcile the capital budget on a regular basis to see what funds might be recouped. So we are in the process of doing that right now.”
“We feel that the impact is not going to be as significant as initially thought but we will wait to see,” he said.
Barbis on March 25 suggested that it might be better to build a new school at Cranbury rather than renovate the existing building.
Adamowski just met with the Cranbury School Governance Council, Rilling said Tuesday.
“They are having discussions on what is the best way to approach that,” he said. “We want to make sure that we listen to the parents. We want to listen to the neighbors. We want to make sure that we do what’s in the best interest of the Cranbury community.”