Lauricella: City needs to continue looking for savings in budget

Diane Lauricella talks to the Board of Estimate and Taxation Wednesday in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – Mayor Harry Rilling looked down from the Norwalk Concert Hall stage Wednesday at a Democratic volunteer who helped him get elected as she criticized some of the work that has been done thus far and harkened to a phrase used by one of Rilling’s opponents in the race to be mayor.

Democratic Town Committee member Diane Lauricella, a persistent municipal government critic and member of the Mayor’s Energy and Environment Task Force, was one of five people who addressed the Board of Estimate and Taxation in a half-hour public hearing on Norwalk’s proposed 2014-15 operating budget.

The Common Council has set a cap of $317.9 million, $500,000 less than the original request made by Rilling and the BET.

Lauricella said she was disappointed that the BET stopped aggressively looking for cuts in the proposed budget when finance personnel found surpluses that made cuts unnecessary to stay under the Common Council-mandated budget cap.

“I know many of you continue to look for cuts in the budget. I believe there are cuts in the budget for this fiscal year that I do believe many of you would be interested in,” she said.

The city spends $300,000 on leaf and stump removal, she said, as an example. That could be cut in half, she said. With that and other cuts it would then be easy to find the $30,000 the (Lockwood-Mathews Mansion) museum is seeking, she said.

“Unless we challenge our department staff to cut and think outside of the box, they won’t,” she said. “It’s so easy to write a check, out of sight out of mind, on leaf removal. I have suggested at the Public Works Committee of the Common Council with the department head in the past that we work with the Conservation Commission, like other towns, and start a backyard composting program and have a goal of cutting the leaf removal cost by half. That is a modest goal.”

Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord has another idea, she said.

“I have heard through the grapevine that the department head is looking at a site that nobody knows about, including neighborhoods, for a leaf composting site,” she said. “Again, to be successful with this, we have to be transparent and not ram it through. Unfortunately, this particular department has a history of surprising people at the last minute for their major project initiatives.”

BET Chairman Jim Clark let Lauricella talk for 12 minutes, well beyond the three-minute time limit. “You’re making a lot of good points, I want to hear them,” he said after eight minutes.

An odor problem at the sewage treatment plant is hurting redevelopment and it’s “not true” that nothing can be done, Lauricella said.

Increased and “reasonable enforcement” of Norwalk’s litter, zoning, snow removal and noise laws, “not with a heavy hammer” but with education, would help bring in more revenue.

“I know it was very difficult for many of you new appointees and our mayor to come in in the middle of a budget cycle, hit the ground running and then look for cuts, so I really applaud the effort,” she said. “I am hoping that, by next year, there are some real attempts to look at new budgeting models. I know that many have said zero-based budgeting doesn’t work, (that) we have tried it. I don’t know because I’m not a financial expert, never claimed to be. New budget formatting, maybe performance budgeting, I’m sure that the mayor and many of you who are new and those of you who have been on the board could look at another way to look at the budget making instead of just looking at what everyone had the year before. They all ask for their 8 percent and then we go forward.”

Rilling’s fellow Democratic mayoral candidate Matt Miklave pushed performance-based budgeting as part of his campaign.

“Some of these departments have not been spending the money wisely and they get used to a level and know they have a traditional cut coming. All I am saying is let’s look at almost zero-based budgeting. … The taxpayers are suffering,” she said.

New city vehicles should be expected to meet a minimum fuel economy, she said. “That is still not the case here and I have been talking about this for years,” she said. “I am hopeful that Mayor Harry will think about this because it is something that is done” in other cities.

Personnel reviews of senior staff should be mandatory, she said, but “I do believe that between now and next winter things will change.” The Planning and Zoning department should be reorganized, maybe “mix up the deck chairs” with the urban planners in redevelopment, she said.

“Charter change can happen. Ordinance changes can happen. Personnel reorganization can happen,” she said. “Consider combining the weights and measures person, John Schwartz, with Ed Schwartz, and I don’t think they’re related. I know there’s been some folks saying there isn’t enough money for that. Well I’m not sure there are enough things for weights and measures to do full time. I have a feeling that we need to think outside the box.”

Lauricella was the last speaker. The meeting ended without further comment from Rilling.


12 responses to “Lauricella: City needs to continue looking for savings in budget”

  1. John Hamlin

    I know absolutely nothing about Diane Lauricella except what I have read in this article, but she has some great ideas, the right approach, and clearly advocates a thoughtful and measured path forward. Imagine — a fiscally responsible and economically moderate Democrat! Maybe we elected the wrong Democrat as our mayor! At least everyone had a chance to hear her — I hope they were listening and remember — and take action. If not, there’s another election the year after next!!

  2. anon

    @Hamlin total agreement, Lauricella balanced. She mentioned when ‘extra’ $500,000 was found, BET stopped looking for cuts. Why? Taxes are going up and property values going down. Find efficiencies BET!

  3. By the Numbers

    Don’t worry. With the City quietly reducing its yard waste pickup schedule each year and its erratic pi c kup patterns, residents will soon be picking up ALL of the costs associated with leaf removal and yard was t e disposal.
    Why is it everytime a department head says “we tried” or “we can’t”, nobody ever says “try harder” or “clearly you need a different approach”?

  4. the donut hole

    The BET was hand picked and crafted to be nothing more than a rubber stamp.
    The BOE says they found $2 million they overcharged us on insurance and says they will only return $500,000 and the BET sits there like that’s cool. It is nearly criminal.
    Most people don’t have time to go to these meetings and hear the same five people drone on about things that will never happen.
    Most people will get their tax bills in a few months and just decide whether or its not worth it to be invested here any longer.
    Keep fooling yourselves that this is sustainable. It isn’t.

  5. EveT

    Yes, just because they “found” an “extra” $500,000 does not mean that all of our money shouldn’t be spent wisely. It should not be an exercise in putting in for the amount each dept got last year because that’s the way it’s always been, and then looking for little cuts if there isn’t enough money to go around. Instead the mayor’s office and each department should look at how are we spending our money, what do we really need, what can we do differently? The investment of time and energy in looking at the big picture and getting out of the old ruts would be well worth it.

  6. Sara Sikes

    Good points Diane! I especially like the composting suggestion. Anyone who has a yard can do composting. The city used to sell composting bins. Some education promoting how easy composting can be would be a good start.

  7. donut, the BoE didn’t “overcharge” anyone on insurance. We SAVED $2 million on insurance premiums because of hard-fought negotiations with our unions and significant improvements in our financial operations. That allowed us to fund some additional programs while taking a further $500K reduction in our appropriation from the City against our original request. We have the smallest percentage increase of any department in the City (quite a contrast from just a few years ago). Calling that set of facts “criminal” seems, well, just a tad harsh.

  8. dianelauricella

    Instead opening this mostly-great article with Paragraphs 1 and 2, I wish that NON Editor would have started this article with Paragraph 13 (…I know it was very difficult…”) because it would have reflected the real spirit and intent that I began my testimony and delivered my info. NON, sounds like you are trying to start a fight where none exists. Unless I self-identify as a DTC member or from any specific group, please assume that I am there as a citizen. We have spoken about this before.

    I was there as a citizen who comes to these events because it is more convenient than contacting each individual, although at times I have reached out.

    I was also there to try and point out to citizens there that they should review the line items as well and offer ideas and possible solutions. For example, I hope that readers will tell the BET to make the department heads more accountable (their salaries and overtime are part of the operating budget) and raise fees for items such as out-of-towners coming to Calf Pasture Beach.

    I was not there as a DTC member nor as a member of the Energy and Environment Task Force, both entities that are just beginning a new cycle.

    I have been very consistent stating that our current administration has inherited many old and bad budgeting habits and staff that got used to a lack of oversight. I voted for Harry Rilling because I believed and still believe that he will make the changes needed to ensure Norwalk is managed better. But be rest assured, this cannot happen overnight. Let’s give them a reasonable chance, then hold all to account.

    While I won’t reject compliments shown in this article’s comment section, I wonder, where were these folks when the previous administration consistently allowed taxes to increase and select senior staff to operate without proper supervision and below reasonable standards????

    Lastly, I indeed was disappointed that so few citizens attended. This could be for many reasons: apathy, despair, satisfaction, fear of previous administration’s rath which still lurks in some offices at City Hall, or combination-of-the-above.

    Give this Mayor a chance. He is still in his “honeymoon period”, like it or not. The BET will continue to discuss this budget. Attend their meetings. Send them your comments about solutions to help us reduce our taxes. Get involved. Stop the noise. When that honeymoon period is over, then take stock.

    Democracy and good government is not a spectator sport.

  9. anon

    Rillings honeymoon was over the moment he began to appoint people, like the BET. Why did they stop looking for cuts and efficiencies? Property values are down in every part of the city, but taxes are still being raised.

    For the record, Moccia gets a C- for tax control. Rilling gets an F so far, takes credit for good news, blames others for bad.

  10. EastNorwalkChick

    anon, maybe you should take Diane’s advice and attend some of these meeting to voice your displeasure, better still offer new ideas or solutions…..what do you think is feasible that will cut waste and still have good City services and governance?
    Diane, great post and great job advocating for the citizens of Norwalk!

  11. Bill

    Well said Diane, we need more good civic minded citizens like you.

  12. spanner

    @Mike Lyons

    improvements in our financial operations

    That must mean those getting free meds by mail after not working for the school dept for over two years were caught up with?That was only one of things that seemed abusive.There must of been a lot of names on that one list finally taken off.

    Someone was paying for those free meds and new scripts all those years.

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