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Norwalk Approves Reduced Budget Increases for Both City and Schools

Board of Education members during online budget review sessions last month.

The Norwalk Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) voted 5-2 Monday to approve a 2.39% increase in the city’s budget and a 3% increase in the Board of Education’s budget for the coming fiscal year. That will result in budgets of $201.8 million for the city and $233.4 million for the school district. 

At the start of the budget process, the Board of Education had asked for an increase of more than 8%. In his initial budget proposal, Mayor Harry Rilling reduced that increase to 4%. 

The compromise vote came after weeks of debate over how Norwalk would face the challenge of a property revaluation that has shifted more of the tax burden to residential property owners from commercial. The BET voted unanimously to phase in the property revaluation over four years, meaning residents won’t pay taxes on the fully increased value of their homes all at once.

“I wish this was easier. I wish this was simple and straightforward,” Chair Ed Abrams said. “However, we’ve got an operating budget that the city and the Board of Education can now work within. I would implore everyone to continue to challenge themselves and be creative in solving  for this budget. I’d also like to point out that, again in the models we looked at, that four-year phasing sets you up for small increases going forward in both city and Board of Education budgets. We need to hold ourselves accountable for those numbers as we go forward.”

The Board discussed keeping both budgets level with last year, in an effort to “force fiscal discipline” and “share the pain” of the proposed tax increases. But some board members said that approach would inflict large cuts on both city and school district services.

“It seems to me that to maintain the level of service that we have, both on the city side and the education side, when we have a situation that was created in large part by COVID, and in part because the City of Norwalk has become so attractive that people are moving here, and residential values are increasing—to ask for that level of pain, to inflict that level of pain…seems to be a bit excessive,” said Ed Camacho, a member of the BET.

Camacho said  the difference between flat-funding and the approved proposal was about $200 a year in taxes. 

“The pain that we’re going to be inflicting—for $200, we don’t need to take that risk,” he added.

Other board members, like Anne Yang, said that can make a difference to families. 

“Every year we go to these numbers, and it’s the same thing: ‘It’s only another $100. It’s only another $400,’” she said. “And unfortunately, it’s all been cumulative to the point where … people are forced to make the decision between groceries or just saying, We’re leaving Norwalk. We have a lot of seniors who live on fixed income and social security. So every dollar I think makes a difference. And you know we have to start somewhere. We have to start to show some fiscal discipline.”

Abrams ultimately pitched the compromise proposal as a way to leave “room for addressing some of the contractually committed increases that they have to pay to keep staff on hand,” but also force the Board of Education to “think a bit more creatively about what they do within the rest of their budget just like the city was able to do in the last 72 hours.”

At the start of the meeting, Mayor Rilling and Tom Ellis, the city’s director of management and budget, proposed the 2.39% increase for the city—down from the initially requested 4%. They said they had “scrubbed the budget” to find additional savings.

“We’re trying to be responsible in our funding and keeping our taxes as low as possible,” Rilling said.”We recognize the tax burden… And we understand the pain. We understand the situation we’re in. And so we want to try to move forward putting together a budget that we’re as comfortable as possible with.”

Rilling said the city was instituting a hiring freeze effective immediately, and he recommended the Board of Education do the same. 

“That will give us an opportunity to evaluate which positions are needed, which ones we might be able to do without, or where we might have some opportunities for consolidation of function, making sure that we try to be as responsible as possible,” he said.  

Board member Artie Kassimis strongly supported Abrams’ compromise and called on the Board of Education to look for cuts, particularly in its central office. 

“There needs to be some sense of compromise. And I appreciate what the city did today. And I’ll go back to the BOE again because I know the numbers there—I think they could do better. I think there’s a lack of transparency on some of the items that they’ve listed in your budget. And I think they need to cut it in some places and I think your proposal is a lot better for me,” he said.

Abrams praised the Board of Estimate and Taxation for its tough questioning.

“I will say that the level of creativity and problem-solving we have seen, which I applaud, has been driven by the hard questions and challenges that we have put upon the city and the Board of Education through this process,” he said. 

Board members Yang and Troy Jellerette voted against the budget. Yang, who had advocated strongly for the phase-in and a flat budget, said she believed the city needed to share the burden of the revaluation with residents.

“If we pass a flat-expense budget, then the city and Board of Education would bear some of the pain as well,” she said. “We have a big problem and every leg of the stool must support each other.” 

Yang, who voted in favor of the phase-in, said that she believed it would help bridge the gap to the next revaluation, which might shift some of the tax burden back to the commercial properties. 

“The new construction that we see today will make its way onto the grand list, further easing the increases over this period of time,” she said. “A four-year phase-in is a bridge to year five where we do another revaluation and hopefully the mix goes back to historical levels. Without the phase-in, we are essentially locking in tax rates at the bottom of the commercial market for the next five years.”

Rilling said the city will “get through it,” and work to ensure that the city departments “live within their budgets.” 

“Thank you to everybody for their hard work, dedication, and really their commitment to the citizens of Norwalk and making sure that we try to give them as much as we can without taking as much as we possibly can,” he said.

Comments

3 responses to “Norwalk Approves Reduced Budget Increases for Both City and Schools”

  1. James Frayer

    Thanks to the Board of Estimate and Taxation for the work they did this budget season. Having participated in this exercise for four years before joining the Common Council, I know how difficult it can be to make bold decisions and reach a consensus. The BET is a nonpartisan group of citizens most of whom have considerable financial experience in diverse industries, they know how budgets and financial plans should be formulated. They are motivated by a sense of duty to the taxpayers of the City of Norwalk, they spend endless hours reviewing and “looking behind the numbers” to ensure funding requests are based on a sound financial basis.
    This year’s task was unprecedented and required some innovative approaches to make our tax levy almost palatable. Not everyone will be happy, but the BET provided the City an approach we can hopefully live with and build on in the future.
    Jim Frayer
    Councilman, District E

    1. John O’Neill

      Jim: Truer words have never been spoken….BET members continue to be the adults in the room. There are many elected officials and voters who could use a tutorial from this group.

  2. Bryan Meek

    Cool. So when we kicked the can down the road in 2018 from that botched reval, kicking it down the road 4 more years should result in roughly a 60% tax increase in 5 years using some basic financial calculations on where we are now. And this doesn’t even include the school projects going way, way over budget. Kiss the AAA rating goodbye.

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