By Common Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-District D)
NORWALK, Conn. – I always enjoy the Common Council discussions of the capital budget. For the most part, these discussions are bipartisan and relatively amicable. Also, it’s interesting to listen to other council members, plus members of the public, who often have detailed knowledge, sometimes based on direct experience, on many of the items in the budget.
But I have to admit, the process takes the wind from our sails because we don’t get to weigh in on the hundreds of line items, which this year totaled over $19 million, until after the Finance Department, the Planning Commission and the mayor recommend how they think the money should be spent. They usually do a fairly decent job, so a lot of the heavy lifting is done by the time we get to make the final decisions.
A few weeks ago when we approved the 2013-14 capital budget, we made several small changes in the mayor’s recommendation. We moved funds around in order to expedite sidewalk repair, increase public art in the city, and establish a teen tech center in the main library. These amendments did not amount to a lot of money, but we felt the tweaking was needed.
There are some aspects of the capital budget that are very important but have no direct bearing on line item allocations; thus, they rarely are debated or even covered by the local media. I’m referring to the impact of these budgets on future operating budgets, especially our debt service and the preservation of our AAA bond rating.
This year, the total cost of departmental requests was $35,354,706. But the Finance Department recommended we spend “only” $19,649,000 in large part to minimize the impact on the debt service portion of future operating budgets and to preserve our AAA credit rating. The goal was to address the essential needs of the city in a fiscally prudent manner. And I think that’s exactly what we did.
Our budget is well within the thresholds established by the rating agencies on “debt factors,” such as debt as a percentage of the market value of all taxable properties, debt service as a percentage of operating expenditures, and per capita debt. If we were to exceed these benchmarks, the city would risk having its credit rating lowered, which would result in higher interest rates for our capital projects, and thus make it very difficult to fund future school renovations, repair roads, and address other capital needs.
Last spring, during the debate on how to deal with the Board of Education’s $4 million shortfall, the Finance Department reported that a lowering of our bond rating from AAA could cost taxpayers an additional $22 million over the next 20 years (assuming our capital expenses remain the same). That would make it next to impossible to maintain and improve our school facilities during the next two decades.
Another little mentioned aspect of the capital budget is the recommended five year plan for our schools, which calls for renovations at Jefferson, Columbus and Cranbury. (Last year, we approved funds for improvements at Rowayton and Naramake .) The budget also contains $2.1 million to implement the BOE’s Common Core Curriculum. Keeping our interests rates low and our debt service at a reasonable level should enable the city to pursue these projects in a timely manner.
Spending money in a prudent way for the long-term betterment of the city is certainly a satisfying experience.