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Kimmel should read Norwalk documents

By Peter Berman

NORWALK, Conn. – Councilman Bruce Kimmel’s (D-District D) plea in a recent OpEd that we take city budget matters off the election year agenda isn’t likely to win many supporters. For starters the councilman should read the Arbitration Award Panel’s report together with the supporting briefs by Norwalk Board of Education Attorney Tom Mooney — highly respected by his peers — and the supporting financial report prepared by Finance Head Tom Hamilton. Each of these reports should be required reading for any elected official interested in city finances.

The panel awarded the city/BOE an unprecedented full freeze, saving the city $2.6 million, on the basis that Norwalk teachers are the fifth highest in the state and have lucrative contract provisions found nowhere else, such as paying with city funds benefits for ex-spouses of teachers. The obvious question is how did a modest income city like Norwalk come to grant such generous salaries and benefits ? It wasn’t the tooth fairy — just a combination of an aggressive union looking after its own interests together with a largely indifferent Common Council, Board of Estimate and Taxation, mayor and BOE not paying much attention to contract negotiations. The fact of the matter is that Norwalk has been overpaying its school budget by any reasonable standard. It’s just that those overpayments have gone to excessively high salaries and benefits rather than hiring additional teachers and aids.

So now that, courtesy of the arbitration panel, the city has a full salary freeze with a $2.6 million savings in hand, Mr. Kimmel wants to spend more monies thus negating the very purpose for which the BOE went to arbitration.

Given the excessively high salaries negotiated by our teachers union, why should we be surprised that similar generosity is found at City Hall where $150,000 salaries are paid to administrators doing the same/similar jobs as was done a decade ago at half the salary. Mr. Kimmel apparently has no problem with city administrators making as much as the governor or his senior aides, who have vastly more challenging jobs. Nor is Mr. Kimmel concerned that city department heads routinely receive yearly raises without any disclosure of the merits of those increases. Nor is Mr. Kimmel concerned that city contracts typically do not specify job ceilings.

One wonders if Mr. Kimmel has spent time and energies reviewing city union contracts and understanding the constraints on negotiations via arbitration that are required to restrain city salaries from perpetually increasing. The absence of arbitration efforts by the city speaks for itself, the BOE an extraordinary exception.

The only way to control the city tax burdens when the grand list remains flat — itself an indication of an unhealthy city in terms of property values and business activity — is to restrain city employee spending. Mr. Kimmel sees only “reasonable increases.”

Mr. Kimmel needs to drive around Norwalk noting the spring bloom of “for sale” signs, desires of long term residents to move away lest their houses further decline in value, declining and stagnant property values and then ask how this all came about. In particular with virtually every significant housing market in the nation rebounding, Norwalk remains stuck in the mud.

Stagnant property values and stagnant grand lists say important things about municipal taxation and employee salaries especially during an expanding economy. Mr. Kimmel needs only ask why our neighboring communities are not suffering stagnant property values and grand lists.

As long as our councilmen take little interest in budget matters and finance we can predict continued stagnant property values and grand lists with some reasonable certainty. Only by constraining budgets and aggressively resisting union demands for ever higher salaries for doing largely the same jobs can Norwalk’s finances and property taxes be arranged in better shape.

Finance and budgets are not Mr. Kimmel’s major interests. And he seems unconcerned about declining/stagnant property values and a stagnant grand list. Or the spring bloom of “for sale” signs. Now if Mayor Moccia wanted to divert attention to stagnant housing values and grand lists, he need but follow Mr. Kimmel’s arguments — we can’t do anything about it — it’s just unfortunate.

Well informed citizens can be expected to ask tough questions about the city’s budget, municipal salaries, stagnant/declining property values, property taxes higher than surrounding towns, union contracts and excessive administrator salaries. Mr. Kimmel would have the election focus on other as yet unnamed issues.

Citizens who have no problem with a 4 percent tax hike, excessive salaries, fifth highest teacher salaries in the state, stagnant/declining property values and grand lists, punitive property tax levels know who is their true champion. Re-elect Mr. Kimmel.

Lets hope that Mr. Kimmel, who occasionally chastises his fellow elected Democrats, is not speaking for Norwalk Democrats generally. Or Republicans. Budgets and property values and grand lists and municipal salaries are real issues for citizens who care about the future the city. Hopefully both Republicans and Democrats will discuss these important issues and suggest how we can improve our financial and economic circumstances. Ignoring these issues will not make them go away. Both Democrats and Republicans have “ownership” of these issues. Whether they have solutions remains to be seen. Mr. Kimmel would rather not that discussion. Budgets and finances and union contracts and negotiations are not easy subjects to deal with. But “for sale” signs, stagnant grand lists and property values and higher property taxes than surrounding towns merit our attention.

At the very least Mr. Kimmel start with the Arbitration Award Panel’s Report, Attorney Mooney’s brief and Finance Head Hamilton’s report prepared for the panel. They should be required reading for all elected officials in our city. Again, its not a Democrat or Republican issue. Its everyone’s issue and its most discomforting that an elected official of your years of service should not take a primary interest in these matters.

Peter I Berman

Comments

9 responses to “Kimmel should read Norwalk documents”

  1. LWitherspoon

    @Peter Berman
    Interesting and well-written comment as always, but I think you’re too hard on Bruce Kimmel. Remember how he voted in favor of outsourcing garbage collection when it became apparent that the savings were significant? That vote took some courage. Ultimately the point of the vote was to address many of the problems that you mentioned in your letter. And it was only possible because the City administration went to arbitration on the Union contract and won the right to outsource collection.
    .
    As for your contention that Norwalk department heads are overpaid, what in your opinion should they be paid? How does their pay compare to department heads in Stamford, Danbury, New Haven, etc? When Board of Ed COO Elio Longo was recruited away from Norwalk by the Westport Public Schools, did he not receive a pay increase?
    .
    Regarding the reports you mention, can you provide a link?

  2. Bruce Kimmel

    It seems that Mr. Berman didn’t read my column carefully, which appeared in today’s Hour and which I hope will appear here in a day or so.

    Nowhere do I mention that the budget should not be an election issue. Nowhere! Also, nowhere do I justify existing salaries. What I wrote was that reducing salaries, as Mr. Berman repeatedly call for, would not have much impact on a budget of roughly $310 million. For instance, if the budget had reduced the salaries of ten administrators by an average of $40,000, which I would never support, it would have reduced the tax burden in the 13-14 operating budget from 3.9% to a little below 3.8% and would have triggered a mass exodus of employees.

    It also appears that Mr. Berman did not closely read the arbitration award regarding the teachers. It did not focus on salary levels; it implemented a hard freeze due to the city’s financial condition. What it did focus on, and called on the BOE and city to promptly fix, was an absurd salary schedule that severely limited any salary increases between the tenth and seventeenth year of employment — and which may be responsible for high turnover of relatively young teachers. Our high average — repeat, average — salaries are due in part to this schedule, which encourages teachers to stay in the system for many years and thus leads to a top heavy system with perhaps too many senior teachers making maximum salary.

    In my opinion, so-called commentators too often throw around statements unsupported by data about for sale signs, Norwalk’s median income (which, by the way, is not nearly so low as Mr. Berman asserts) and the city’s general economic health. It is irresponsible.

  3. Bruce Kimmel

    Mr. Witherspoon: Indeed, Mr. Longo did receive a salary increase when he left for Westport.

  4. Bruce Kimmel

    Apologies to L.Witherspoon. I should never have assumed you are a “Mr.” And thanks to my wife for immediately reprimanding me for my assumption.

  5. SB

    I always find Bruce Kimmel and Peter Berman’s writing to be enlightening, especially since they reflect different viewpoints. I am troubled by Bruce’s idea that public employees’ salaries should increase every year and also his prediction that there would be a mass exodus of employees if they didn’t get raises. Wonder where he thinks these emplyees are going to find jobs with similar compensation? Not in the private sector, meaning those of us who are paying the taxes to provide for the public employees.
    I work for a small thriving business and no one gets raises every year. We have high deductible ($3-4K) medical plans and feel VERY fortunate to have coverage. We have paid vacation and sick days and feel very fortunate to have a few weeks off each year for this, when most businesses don’t provide these benefits anymore. The practice of providing a yearly raise for public employees and extremely beneficial benefits is what led to the obscene “longevity” bonuses at the state level. I hope that our mayoral candidates of both parties, as well as Council and BOE will talk freely about how they can cut down on these costs.

  6. Bruce Kimmel

    SB: Good points. But I do believe we would quickly lose our best and most competent department heads, and school administrators. In the context of binding arbitration, which determines much that goes on vis-a-vis salaries in the state, municipalities are often backed into a corner. Also, we happen to be smack dab in the middle of a region of extremely high salaries. Witness what happened to Mr. Longo, who was really good at what he did for the BOE. Anyway, good points.

  7. LWitherspoon

    @SB
    I don’t think Bruce Kimmel ever stated that public employees’ salaries should increase every year. Can you provide a reference to where he says so?
    .
    The comment Mr. Kimmel made above is about department heads only, and I agree with his point. The people who make decisions about how to stretch our tax dollars as far as possible should be paid the same as they would be in other municipalities.
    .
    Incidentally, I agree with you wholeheartedly regarding guaranteed yearly salary increases for municipal employees. The politicians who made this a standard practice are long gone, leaving us with a municipal workforce that cries bloody murder if they have to go a single year without a raise. Anyone who works in the private sector recognizes that guaranteed yearly raises do not exist there.
    .
    The recent arbitration award involving teachers – widely acknowledged as a milestone – won a one-year freeze in the first year of a two-year contract, followed by a FOUR PERCENT raise in the second year. Oh the humanity!
    .
    Board of Ed Member Sue Haynie played a key role in achieving this result, which had Teachers Union president Bruce Mellion muttering “wait ’til November” like some kind of cartoon villain. If the Teachers Union has enough political influence to prevent Ms. Haynie’s re-election, Norwalk will be in big trouble.

  8. piberman

    Councilman Kimmel needs to read 4 relevant documents on the recent Arbitration hearings: brief by the NFT’s attorney; briefby BOE attorney Tom Mooney; Finance Chief Hamilton’s background report on the City’s finances; and the Report by the Arbitration Award Panel itself. I doubt that any of our Councilman have read all 4 reports.

    NFT’s contention was that Norwalk was “one of the wealthiest cities in the nation” and therefor able to afford continued salary increases for NFT members. NFT’s attorney did not contest the BOE’s and Hamilton’s assertion that NFT teachers have the 5th highest salaries in the state, well beyond the City’s 16th ranking on average household incomes. It was that citation Mr. Kimmel that formed the basis of the Panel’s recomended freeze. As to the peculiar salary schedule the Panel recommended a future hearing to untangle that mess. The Arbitration was a major event for the BOE and the City especially in that it encouraged a healthy debate on the City’s finances.

    To the best of my knowledge neither Mr. Kimmel nor any of the Common Council members have celebrated and approved the Arbitration Award as an outstanding achievement. If I’m wrong please correct me.

    As to Mr. Kimmel’s claim that his vote for a 4% tax hike is reasonable again I refer to Tom Hamilton’s report and that of the Arbitration Panel. Here the Panel makes the specific statement to the effect that Norwalk’s high taxes and salaries relative to surrounding towns were the direct cause of Norwalk’s substantially greater decline in housing values relative to surrounding towns. By enthusiastically advocating the Republican administration’s 4% tax hike Mr. Kimmel ensures future stagnation in Norwalk’s housing market to the deteriment of hard pressed homeowners.

    The case for Norwalk’s financial distress is compelling. As long as Council members including Mr. Kimmel deny the observable and reportable financial facts it will remain so. In well governed communities when financial distress is well recognized the appropriate action is to tighten the belts. And make the requisite changes on salary structures at every opportunity.

    Now Mr. Kimmel, reportedly a school teacher in NYC and therby a union man, understandably has sympathies with Norwalk’s overpaid school teachers and our municipal workers generally. But the observable facts are that Norwalk’s excessive tax rates are a direct reflection of excessive salaries. It’s not monkeys from heaven.

    If Mr. Kimmel doubts that most retired Norwalk property owners understand their predicament of stagnant property values amidst a national housing price boom with no relief in sight then come on down and speak to my neighbors. The “for sale” signs are just real folks anxious to with their feet and move to better environs.

    Finally, who is responsible for Norwalk’s overpaid municipal workers (relative to our incomes) ? Not the tooth fairy. Our Common Council members and Mayors have left the community down and avoided arbitration. They can all take some “learning” from the BOE members who had the true grit to go to arbitration and get criticized for it.

    Finance is a tough subject for politicans Mr. Kimmel. But it does help to read the requisite reports, get the facts straight and propose solutions. If you think that’s “irresposible” that’s your priviledge. But I and your constitutents expect you to have our interests first and foremost, not the unions. A vote for a 4% tax hike is exactly that – for the unions and against the intersts of City taxpayers. As long as Common Council members are lackadaical when it comes to financial matters our problems will simply deepen. The time to start on our financial problems is now. A vote for a 4% tax hike speaks loudly that the Council is not interested in resolving the City’s financial difficulties or even recognizing them. Maybe election time will bring aboard some more financially knowledgeable “public servants”. The smart money doesn’t think so.

  9. SB

    Bruce,
    Thanks for for response and I agree that employees like Mr. Longo need to have competitive compensation. It may be difficult to keep competent people with financial and technological skills and experience in a public school setting, especially Norwalk. For the vast majority of employees in the city and school system, however, this isn’t true. They are overpaid compared to other towns like Norwalk and the tax payers who are supporting them.

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