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Just Four Norwalk Residents Weigh in on Proposed City Budget

A public hearing on the proposed city budget on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024.

Only four residents voiced their opinions to the Finance and Claims Committee of the Common Council during its February 15 public hearing on the city’s $442.7 million proposed budget. Mayor Harry Rilling’s recommended budget calls for $236.8 million for the schools and $205.9 million for the city, about a 4.5% increase over last year. 

“We are presented with several budget challenges … We have to make some really key decisions on what we have to focus on now and what we might have to phase in over the next few years,” Council member Greg Burnett, who chairs the committee, said.

Burnett also noted that no emails had been received by the committee related to the budget. 

Public Comments on the Budget

Resident Diane Lauricella called on the city to “look at where we can cut costs in the operating budget.”

She called on the council to review her “public hearing comments for the last 10 years,” which laid out some ideas she had for saving costs. One of those included working with the school district to reduce their energy costs, particularly through more green energy ideas, such as solar and heat pumps, not just on new buildings but on existing ones.

“This is something that schools throughout the state have done, but in Norwalk our policy is costing us hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said.

She also suggested ending the lease for the Welcome Center for the school district and relocate that to an existing city-owned property.

Lauricella also called on the Department of Public Works to adopt the “waste management from the school system.”

“It’s ridiculous and inefficient to have two different groups negotiating contracts,” she said. 

Also on the city side, she advocated for bringing on a full-time grant coordinator, trimming the chief of staff budget, and reducing energy use. 

Resident Lisa Brinton expressed concern about the city’s debt service, or the interest and principal it pays on its bonds.

“Our debt service has obviously increased due to the two new school constructions,” she said. “I really think that that debt service is something that we’re going to have to look at.”

She also cited potential inefficiencies between the Department of Public Works and the Department of Economic and Community Development.

“Public Works, I think this department has been consistently underfunded,” she said. “I’d like to go on the record and raise a concern I’ve had for a few years now about the potential overlap functions of the newer and separated departments of the economic and community development group and the traffic, mobility, and parking. I’ve personally never understood why some of those functions and the corresponding funding didn’t sit under DPW.”

Brinton also advocated for additional zoning and blight enforcement staff.

“These positions would easily pay for themselves through fines,” she said. “Not to mention the priceless goodwill they’d bring toward neighborhoods in helping ensure buildings were safe and not overcrowded and they’d also put on notice those landlords cheating the tax rolls with their illegal apartments.”

School Funding

The proposed 4.5% or $10 million increase to the school district fell short of what the Norwalk Board of Education had requested, which was an 8.2% increase.

In a joint statement from Superintendent Alexandra Estrella and the Board of Education wrote that the “4.5% increase will cover little more than our contractual increases.”

“It will not address the needs of our teachers who need more time to plan thoughtful and effective lessons for the betterment of our students,” the statement read. “It will not address our rapidly growing number of special education and multilingual learner students currently enrolled and moving into our district. It will not provide necessary funds to keep our magnet programs growing.”

However, no one spoke at the hearing in favor of additional funding for the schools.

Brinton said she supported the 4.5% increase for the schools. She highlighted some of Estrella’s comments that more money was needed to give teachers more prep time and relieve their stress, and said that “teachers might not need more prep time if they weren’t being micromanaged by central office and what I see as a growing administrative staff.”

“We do need more aides in the classroom for kids, but we don’t need more expensive top-down supervision,” she said. 

One parent, Liette Bechervaise, who is the president of the Roton Middle School PTA, advocated for the lockers in the school to be replaced. 

“They are in a very old, decrepit state and need to be removed,” she said. “They were installed in 1966 when the school was built. They’re extremely narrow.”

Bechervaise said that it’s “never possible” for students to fit their binders and backpacks in them “so then they end up carrying these thick heavy binders all day long.”

While this hearing was only on the operating budget, Rilling said that he planned to put funding for the lockers back into the capital budget plans. 

“[Dr. Estrella] indicated to me that there was some concern among parents with lockers being removed from the capital budget,” he said. “The lockers are not very pleasant. They’re kind of torn apart and they’ve been there for a long time. We are going to put that back in the capital budget.”

Next Steps

This was the first opportunity for the public to weigh in on the budget this cycle. Following the public hearing, the committee will meet again next week to discuss and set a budget cap, which then gets sent to the full Common Council for a vote. The Board of Estimate and Taxation will also begin its review of the budget.

There will be another public hearing on the budget, held by the Board of Estimate and Taxation on March 20. 

Comments

One response to “Just Four Norwalk Residents Weigh in on Proposed City Budget”

  1. Bryan Meek

    The budget is still not up on the website, but the news that it is going to snow last Tuesday still is.

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