Updated Wednesday, April 27, 9:05 p.m., with responses from State Rep. Fred Wilms (R-142).
NORWALK, Conn. – A budget-slashing proposal by the state’s Republican delegation in the General Assembly, which has drawn some interest from Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, has raised eyebrows more than a bit with a couple of Norwalk’s Democratic leaders.
As reported by the Connecticut Mirror, “The Republican proposal largely shields cuts to municipal aid for public schools by restoring the cuts to wealthy communities that Malloy and the Appropriations Committee targeted. The GOP plan, however, does propose cutting Education Cost Sharing grant ‘earmarks’ to four communities; $1 million for West Hartford, $450,000 to West Haven, $750,000 to New Haven and $200,000 for Norwalk. … Another $2.6 million would be cut to the state’s 15 lowest-performing districts, known as the Priority School Districts.”
Common Council President and Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel cautioned Tuesday night against rushing to make decisions, especially with everything in flux at the state level.
“Everyone is pushing and pushing for answers. They have to be patient. There are so many moving pieces here. We have to do this right, we want to do it but we are not going to be rash and make a decision and then find out we got that cut and that cut and now we are really screwed.”
Later, having seen the CT Mirror story, Kimmel responded further.
“I have not seen the Republican proposal,” Kimmel said in an email, “but in light of what’s been said over the years by our Republican reps in Hartford, it boggles the mind to hear that anyone, from either party, would dare to cut Norwalk’s ECS grant. Talk about adding insult to a long-existing injury.”
A Tuesday night email inquiry to State Representatives Terrie Wood (R-141), Fred Wilms (R-142), and Gail Lavielle (R-143) drew no immediate response, but Wilms responded Wednesday evening with a comment at the end of this story signed by all three Republican reps. The entire comment may be read below, but he summarized with this:
“As we know the State is in a fiscal crisis and the storm is expected to get worse over the next five years. Based on this fiscal reality, the GOP decided the only rational way to budget was to put together a five year proposal. … As in any negotiation, no one gets 100% of what they want. The GOP budget negotiations involved 64 House members and 15 Senate members. No one got everything they wanted. So while we negotiated a lot of good things for the State and for Norwalk, we wish there was not an initial $200,000 ECS hit, nor a potential $255,000 reduction in Priority School District funds. However our leadership understands the unique importance of ECS funding to Norwalk and has pledged to work with us on restoration.
“In conclusion we once again stress the five year protection of the GOP budget. As the State fiscal crisis worsens, pressure to slash aid to municipalities will dramatically increase. Lower municipal aid means Norwalk would have to raise property taxes in response. This fiscal crisis is growing beyond the ability of any legislative leader to insulate their town. As such we believe the best protection to Norwalk can only be achieved by sustainable long range budget planning.”
Mayor Harry Rilling expressed frustration with the situation Tuesday and pointed out that the cities and towns are coming up on the statutory deadline to set their budgets.
“Monday night we have to approve our final budgeting, by city ordinance, and if we don’t have something more solid then obviously if our revenue stream from the government … if that is cut then we have to go back to the drawing board and make some drastic changes.
“The bottom line is we worked really, really hard to keep our budget increase down to a bare minimum, in fact the lowest mill rate and tax levy increase in over 10 years. Now, if they throw us a curve ball by (cutting) the already underfunded ECS money as well as the Priority School District money, which we get because we are identified as a school system, underperforming (the achievement gap) … If they cut that, it is going to take us back to the drawing board and make us have to do one of two things, or a combination thereof. We are going to have to cut our budget significantly someplace in order to make up for the shortfall, or increase taxes.”
Rilling explained that the city is obligated by state law to at least match the current year’s school budget, regardless of what the state sends to the city for education aid.
“The thing is, if they cut our ECS and our Priority School District, I know that we have in Connecticut a minimum budget requirement, an MBR,” Rilling said. “So if they take away… we only get (about) 11 million from ECS … if they take that away, we have no choice but to put that back in out of the city funding. So we have to give them at least as much as we gave them last year. We can’t give them less. If they cut our ECS and our Priority Schools, that doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to fund our Board of Ed at least what we gave them last year. Plus, they are asking for a 3.9 percent increase that we gave them – we fully funded the Board of Ed this year.
“We found the extra money; we were $600,000 apart at the end of the budget process,” Rilling continued. “We gave them another $300,000. We found the other $300,000 by some efficiencies, energy savings and so forth. So we gave them the full amount, the 3.9 percent increase that they wanted. We can make changes, but we don’t want to. We want to give them the money they need to get the job done to give our children a world-class education. However, if (the state keeps) pulling away and pulling away, we still have to give them the money we gave them last year. “
What will happen will depend on what goes on in Hartford in the coming days. Funding for schools is not the only cut the city could see. Another cut that would affect Norwalk under the proposal involves the plan passed last June as Senate Bill 1 to share a portion of state sales tax receipts with cities and towns. “Communities are slated to get more than $240 million next fiscal year, and almost $300 million in 2017-18,” according to CT Mirror.
Under the Republican proposal, more than half that figure would be cut next year. The rest would go toward capping municipal property taxes on motor vehicles.
That cut, added the $200,000 ECS cut and Priority District cut, could put a serious squeeze on the city’s budget.