NORWALK, Conn. – A smattering of citizens showed up in Concert Hall for Wednesday night’s Board of Estimate and Taxation public hearing on Norwalk’s proposed $317.9 million 2014-15 operating budget.
There were few speakers who chose to address the gathering that included department heads on hand to explain their budget requests. One speaker supported the Board of Education budget – understandable, as he helped create it – one pleaded for help for the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum and three praised the Norwalk Public Library’s English as a Second Language literacy program.
The mayor began the meeting by lauding the finance department and the BOE.
“The Board of Education worked extremely well and put together a budget that we felt so comfortable with, we felt that it was only proper to fully fund that budget request,” he said. “I think that is the spirit of cooperation they have shown.”
BOE Chairman Mike Lyons said that is because the board now has access to high-level financial help in the form of Chief Financial Officer Rich Rudl.
The BET is planning $166.4 million for the BOE. It was higher, but the BOE found $2 million in its insurance accounts and “gave back” $500,000 to the city.
“We started out at $168 million,” he said. “That number has been steadily reduced without reducing any positions. … I do believe that is the first time the Board of Education ever came back and said would you please take some money back?”
While the BOE is getting fully funded, the city budget does not include $30,000 requested by the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum. Patsy Brescia spoke at the hearing, repeating many things she said last week at a BET workshop, trying to convince the BET to reconsider.
A contract for construction at the museum will be on the council’s agenda next week, she said. Construction on a new elevator and bathrooms is set to begin April 15, much later than originally planned, leading to financial hardship, she said.
The BET is planning to fund the library’s ESL program with a $36,600 grant, but said last week that it hoped other funding would be found for the program next year. The money funds part-time employees who coordinate volunteers.
Mia Costanza Wiggers said she began teaching English to immigrants last October, although she had no training until she enrolled in the program. Three of her students are from Columbia, three are from China, one is from Peru and one is from Haiti, she said. They couldn’t even say hello, she said.
“They started out with basically nothing. Now they are talking to each other,” she said.
The “close knit group” meets in the Methodist Church on Belden Avenue, sharing food from their various countries, she said. One is a Chinese woman who wanted to get a driver’s license so as to not be dependent on her husband, she said. One is a dishwasher who wanted to learn English so she could be a cashier or waitress and not be isolated in a restaurant kitchen, she said. One had a daughter in elementary school and she wanted to be able to talk to the teacher.
“There’s a lot of good stuff going on in the literacy classes,” she said. “(They’re) making significant progress with their goals. A lot of change is being made in their lives and it’s all for free for these students. It’s a really good program.”