NORWALK, Conn. — “Sobering” was the word used Tuesday by three Norwalk Common Council members to describe warnings given by Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz last week.
Two of the three went on to vote in favor of the borrowing $129 million to fund infrastructure projects that include a new Norwalk High School, road paving, athletic fields, flood mitigation and a new Cranbury Elementary School.
The vote on the $153.8 million 2020-21 capital budget was 13-0-1, with the lone Council Republican dissenting. The budget factors in $24 million in expected grant funding, so it’s $129 million that’s now authorized for bonding.
Norwalk has committed to too much borrowing, Dachowitz said last week. On Tuesday, he endorsed the authorization to add to the total.
“As the Mayor said, if circumstances don’t work out the way we see, we do not necessarily have to move forward (with the borrowing), but (the approval) buys us some time,” Dachowitz said. “That’s part of what we’re trying to do. Buy some time, see how the economy and events develop and then we can make even better decisions down the road. We’re looking for flexibility.”
Residents in Cranbury and the northern part of East Norwalk will be very happy to see the budget pass, so they can get relief from constant flooding, Planning Committee Chairman John Kydes (D-District C) said, in highlighting what’s in the budget.
The West Rocks Middle School soccer complex is in the budget, as are the Broad River baseball complex and the Brien McMahon High School turf softball field, he said.
“We’re right at the finish line on those,” he said. “And hopefully ‘corona’ will be behind us and kids will get to enjoy. These new fields we’ll have by the end of the summer.”
And, Norwalk High School will be 80 percent paid for by the State, he said.
“This is a very large budget with a lot of really important items, like John mentioned,” Council member Tom Livingston (D-District E) said.
Dachowitz’ presentation last week was “a little sobering,” Livingston said. “And I just want to say that, while I support, strongly support the proposed capital budget, I also recognize that we need to be prepared to make adjustments down the road should the financial situation in the city change, because of COVID-19 or any other reason, but I think it’s a good budget.”
It was “very sobering,” Council member Thomas Keegan (R-District D) countered. “These are very, very different times, and nothing than any of us are prepared for or know what’s going to happen in our future.”
“I watch how the communities around us, most of them, many of them nationally and the state level, and even the ones very nearby, all of them are making cuts. And we’re not,” Keegan said. With people out of work and worried about how to feed their families, “I think we are being a bit aloof. And we’re walking about with not a care in the world. I just I don’t know why we think we’re different. Because I don’t think we are.”
David Heuvelman (D-District A) agreed that last week was “very sobering.”
“This crisis has defined a future of uncertainty and to deny this uncertainties existence and maintain a course, that was started before the viruses impact may not prove to be prudent,” he said. “I mean, it may get worse, it may stay the same, but I think that we can all agree that we’re not going to be going back to January of 2020.”
It’s a reality that difficult decisions will have to be made in the coming two years because of the crisis, he said.
“It’s not an authorization to spend,” Mayor Harry Rilling said. “Nobody knows more than I do about the need to be frugal and to make the tough decisions that we have to make should the situation change. But if we don’t move some of these items forward, they cannot move forward at all. But if we move them forward, and things change, we don’t have to bond them. We don’t have to proceed with them.”
He likened it to taking out a home equity line of credit, saying that you get it in case you need it, but you don’t have to use it.
Some of the projects in the “carefully crafted” budget will boost the economy because people will be working, and if Norwalk doesn’t go ahead with Norwalk High School it’s an opportunity lost, he said.
It’s an investment in infrastructure that was neglected before he was elected in 2013, he said. “Our schools have not been kept up. The money has been spent elsewhere,” and the City’s consultants have said the Triple A bond rating is not at risk.
“Nobody will be quicker to say, ‘look, we can’t afford this,’ than me when it comes time to make the decisions,” Rilling said. “…If we don’t invest in our infrastructure… it’s either pay me now or pay me later.”
Story corrected at 3:54 p.m. to show that the vote was 13-0-1. Council President Barbara Smyth (D-At Large), a Norwalk High School teacher, recused herself.