I watched Senator Duff’s recent press conference, where he touted the proposed state budget as a win for education and Norwalk, while taking a swipe at Republicans. The swipe was unnecessary, since bi-partisan legislative adjustments were made a couple of years ago for student poverty and English Language Learners (ELL). The result for Norwalk is $1.5 million in additional Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) over two years, but it’s peanuts in the grand scheme of things. Here’s why.
The broken formula still relies primarily on home property values as a means of measuring municipal wealth. Yet, under this formula, towns with higher incomes, but ‘lower’ home values and virtually no student poverty or ELL students can still get more state money than Norwalk.
Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury take the lion’s share of Norwalk’s income tax dollars. We pay to educate their students and then pay again to educate our own. Last year, Norwalk applied $11 million in ECS funding to its $185 million school budget. Compared to those four cities, whose individual ECS contributions range from $133-$200 million (or up to 75% of their overall school budgets), it’s easy to get cynical. Norwalk’s free and reduced lunch student population has grown substantially over the years. In 2004-05, it was 23 percent. In 2012-13, it was 47 percent. For the 2018-19 school year, it stands at 57 percent. Escalating student need is not a healthy trend.
The state also seems determined to push the teacher pension obligations back on municipalities. The Teacher’s Pension Fund and State Employee Plan liabilities now exceed $20 billion, accounting for nearly one-third of the state budget. When a portion of these pensions get pushed down to municipalities, local property taxes will go up, as millions in annual costs are added to the school budget. Hartford also wants municipalities paying teachers more than the state average to contribute more, upping the contribution from 25 to 40 percent. Guess what? Norwalk pays more.
Exiting businesses and jobs is another unhealthy trend. The Connecticut Post reported 3400 jobs lost during the first quarter of this year. Norwalk sees it with departures of Diageo and GE, job cuts at Frontier Communications and the closures of Klaff’s and Lillian August’s Annex. Even Stew Leonard’s has cut some administrative jobs. Connecticut continues to rank nationally at the bottom for business friendliness. For those staying, the reward is more taxes.
Connecticut’s solution to a weak economy, which City Hall seems to have embraced, is cramming as many people into the Stamford-Norwalk- Bridgeport corridor as is humanly possible. It’s called Transit Oriented Development (TOD). For Norwalk, it’s meant a surge of new apartment units — thousands of them — located in fortress-like blocks along the commuter corridor of I-95, Route 7 and the Merritt Parkway. We’re turning into a transient, congested city. Home ownership and values are declining, despite the inflated and botched 2018 revaluation. Scores of residents and businesses are appealing. According to the 2018 Connecticut Economic Resource database, owner-occupied housing stands at 57 percent, with 43 percent in single and multi-family rental units. However, real rental percentages are likely higher since these figures do not include illegal apartments or those not yet built.
Last, the 2019-20 city budget required a $6 million dip into the Rainy Day Fund to cover the 3.8% budget increase, despite the highly-touted growth of the Grand List — which in all likelihood will partially evaporate as residents and businesses work their way through the appeal process.
These unhealthy trends are why I’m running for mayor and challenging Norwalk’s political establishment. Residents deserve an honest look at the city’s financial health. We need professional management to address high-density development that has created a shift in our housing stock and ability to fund education. We also need better policies and city hall practices that encourage business in order to diversify our revenue. Addressing these issues requires visionary leadership, without conflicts of interest, so residents can be confident their government is operating effectively and fairly on their behalf and communicating as openly as possible.
A strategic change in direction like this would really be something to brag about!
Lisa Brinton is an unaffiliated candidate for mayor.