By Bruce Kimmel (D-District D)
NORWALK, Conn. – Sometimes you just can’t win, especially during a municipal election year. Reading some of the contributions to the local media, one might conclude that the city is spending too much and has saddled taxpayers with a heavy burden. But others have argued that the city has severely underfunded education in its 2013-14 operating budget.
I would argue that both views are off the mark and that next year’s budget is a fair balance between the needs of the city, especially the school system, and the needs of taxpayers.
We were faced with some difficult choices when the budget was crafted last winter. The grand list and revenues were virtually flat, employee benefits were increasing between 15 and 20 percent, we had already dipped into our rainy day fund for $1.7 million, and we had no idea what the level of state aid would be. Even though property taxes had increased the last four years by an average of 1.9 percent, we knew they would have to be higher in the 2013-14 fiscal year.
So we approved a balanced budget that increased spending for the Board of Education 4.4 percent over current levels, but also increased property taxes by 3.9 percent. Some say we should spend less in order to keep taxes low, others say we should spend more, especially on education. But it’s not that simple.
A few of those arguing the city is spending too much and that taxes are too high seem to believe our “highly paid” department heads, administrators and teachers are the cause of the problem.
Whether they are paid too much or too little, in a budget of roughly $310 million, is beside the point. If the budget had cut the salaries of 10 department heads by an average of $40,000, which I would never support, it would have reduced the tax increase from 3.9 percent to a little less than 3.8 percent. A tenth of a percent is not much, especially when measured against a mass exodus of employees.
Others have argued that the city’s rising pension and benefits costs are the driving forces behind spending and need to be reduced. These costs are governed by federal and state law, as well as our charter, and can only be addressed through contract negotiations. For instance, the charter requires the city to meet the annual required contribution to our pension fund, which is updated each year by an independent actuary. This year, unfortunately, the increase was about 34 percent.
However, our pension costs should decrease in future years because we recently negotiated a new type of plan with city unions; all new hires will be enrolled in a defined contribution plan (similar to a 401K), as opposed to the current defined benefit plan. Also, the city, through contract negotiations, has reduced health care costs by implementing optional Health Saving Accounts and making employee contributions commensurate with other towns in the state.
The point is, the city has been working with department heads and its unions to find ways to keep property taxes under control, despite next year’s uptick. And by doing so, we were able to increase the BOE budget by 4.4 percent, which does not include the more than $2 million in the capital budget for new textbooks and technology. Moreover, the current administration, like previous ones, is constantly searching for ways to increase revenues, which in the long run is the best way to alleviate budget pressures.
As mentioned above, this is a municipal election year, and sometimes the rhetoric goes too far and is downright irresponsible. For instance, it’s been argued in the local media that the city is responsible for the $4 million shortfall in the BOE’s 2011-12 operating budget. The writer, who is an employee of the BOE and a key operative for a Democratic mayoral candidate, wrote – and later defended on a blog – that the city controls the BOE insurance fund and thus is responsible.
These kinds of statements do not serve the public well. The BOE’s former chief operating officer, and the auditors from BlumShapiro, who spent several months performing a detailed audit of the BOE’s insurance and special education accounts, concluded that the board was, indeed, responsible. They also applauded the board and the city for moving quickly to implement a variety of controls to prevent similar shortfalls in the future.
Let’s hope, as the election gets closer, that the partisan rhetoric is closer to the facts.
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