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