Letter: Census data reveals Norwalk’s dilemma

By Peter I. Berman

To the Editor:

With budget time approaching, Norwalk’s elected officials might want to review population changes from the U.S. Census data between 1990 and 2010 to fully appreciate the negative consequences of funding the highest municipal salaries of any city in the state with punitive property taxes in a city with just modest incomes.

Virtually every significant community in Fairfield County has experienced much more population growth than Norwalk. Increasingly, Norwalk is the odd man out. Even its employees live elsewhere. People are indeed voting with their feet. And those coming here are mostly choosing rental housing. Who wants to buy a house or condo without prospects of price appreciation?

Let’s start with the Stamford comparison, Connecticut’s premier city where many Norwalk residents work. Stamford added twice as many residents as Norwalk, 15,000 versus 7,000. To keep matters in perspective, the state’s remaining cities – the five welfare cities of Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, New Britain and Waterbury – as a group actually lost population. The state as a whole gained about 9 percent.

Next let’s look at the population changes in the five well-managed surrounding towns of Darien, New Canaan, Weston, Wilton and Westport. As a group, these five towns – among the wealthiest in America with superb public education – also added about twice as many new residents as did Norwalk. These five towns together now have a substantially larger population than Norwalk – 95,102 versus 85,603. Every one of these five towns, save Westport, gained proportionally more population than Norwalk.

Let’s go further afield. Danbury’s population rose 15,308, or 23.3 percent, over the 1990-2010 period. That’s 2.5 times faster than Norwalk. Danbury will soon overtake Norwalk in size. Now let’s look at Ridgefield. Its population surged 17.8 percent, almost twice Norwalk’s. Fairfield, too, rose 11.2 percent over the same period. Indeed, with the exception of wealthy Greenwich (just a 4.7 percent increase to 61,171) and Westport (8.1 percent increase to 26,391) every significant sized community in Fairfield County had stronger population growth than Norwalk. Is it Norwalk’s water?

While underlying causes of relative population changes are complex, there’s little doubt that Norwalk’s punitive property tax hikes to fund its top-paid municipal workers are the leading cause. There’s no other community in Fairfield County with median household income of just about $70,000 that pays anywhere near its public school teacher salaries – fifth highest in the entire state. (See the details in the recent Arbitration Panel Report).

Not surprisingly, most of Norwalk’s modest population increase has involved rentals who now make up fully one-third of the city’s population. And the remaining homeowners are increasingly divided between condo owners and stand-alone homes. Increasingly, Norwalk is Fairfield County’s most transient community with an ever-decreasing number of long-time residents. The bulwark of Norwalk’s core community – its long term homeowner residents – is shrinking along with its once-proud small business community.

Comparing population changes over the past 20 years with adjacent communities together with stagnant property values over the past three years amidst a national housing boom ought to impress even the most devoted big spending supporter of public unions (who return the “favor” mostly by not living in Norwalk) that Norwalk is spending its way to becoming another Bridgeport. Our politicians ought to reflect on why newcomers to Fairfield County mostly choose to live anywhere than in Norwalk. Stagnant housing values “tell all.”

At budget time we ought to reject our politicians’ perennial “remedy” of solving Norwalk’s out of control spending by advocating “growing the Grand List” by encouraging big business to “invest in Norwalk.” That simply illustrates not only their ignorance of how municipal development takes place but their continuing reluctance to understand the obvious linkages between excessive salaries (relative to our incomes) and property taxes. The real challenge is to encourage a revitalization of Norwalk’s once proud small business community. But small business won’t revisit with punitive property taxes and unaffordable rents. For the foreseeable future Norwalk will remain a highly residential community dependent on nearby Stamford for jobs.

Our review of population changes illustrates their well-known sensitivity to punitive taxes financing excessive municipal salaries. Norwalk’s politicians have levied a double whammy – punitive property taxes and stagnant property values denying future property appreciation. “The funny thing of it,” as the late lifelong resident Wally Clark used to say, is that even our public employees – who once mostly lived in the city – have also moved away, escaping from punitive taxes. If only our politicians were as smart as our public employees! If only our politicians understood why our city remains unattractive to small business. Maybe we need new politicians. Ones who look at Census data.

Peter I Berman



15 responses to “Letter: Census data reveals Norwalk’s dilemma”

  1. anonymous

    25 years ago Norwalk schools had more than 13,000 students, now the schools have 11,000. The students left also.

  2. MarjorieM

    Berman, you need your own blog. It is tiresome to read your statements on here all the time.

  3. Anonymous

    You realize that all the cities and towns you compare Norwalk to here in Fairfield County also have unions? And i’m sure most of those employees don’t live in those towns as well. There are some professions where the employee should not live where they work.

  4. EveT

    A Google search of “voting with their feet” plus the word “Norwalk” reveals that Mr. Berman has been beating this drum for going on 20 years.

  5. Oldtimer

    Professor Berman is blaming public employees for Norwalk’s problems and loses sight of how many manufacturing jobs we have lost to automation, much lower labor prices in other places, and the collapse of entire industries, such as making hats.

  6. Piberman

    To Oldtimer:

    The issue here is not unions. It’s the politicians inability to keep union salaries and benefits affordable to the community. Norwalk ranking only 19th in income can’t prosper with 5th highest teacher salaries. Stagnant property values reflect our punitive property taxes needed to fund unaffordable union salaries. So people move elsewhere where politicians understand finance. We’re loosing our core bedrock of civic minded retired homeowners who can’t afford our property taxes. Its a scenario for failure.

  7. spanner

    As long as we have $30 dollar plus an hour private contractors working for the city mowing lawns,picking up trash and $100,000 plus public employees.Stagnant housing values “tell all.”
    yes we lost about $180,000 in one swipe of the pen maybe others could offer some thought that would ease the pain of Peters pen.Instead of insluting some of those council members have been around long enough to remember the invention of the republican wheel that have recently been hghlighted in the school and dpw matters agreeing with Peter on just this article is wrong?The condition of the city based on hat sales seems to be a stretch when our State reps do nothing but play the pony show and work hard at election time setting up the mirrors and fish for red herring seems not to be a Peter problem after all.My family and our friends rely on Metro North for school and jobs suppose if there was a way to pin the problems on safety and convenance on Peter I would but that lies on the shoulders of our Democrtas right now and what assurances do any of have thats going to change?I agree new politicians are needed from all three parties no where did I read it was just democrats Peter was suggesting needed thinning.

  8. srb

    The letter earns a C, clearly not evidence of high quality schooling. The letter is inconsistent and uses statistics illogically and inconsistently. Berman never states what are the other top paying districts, all of which surround Norwalk. The districts from Greenwich to Fairfield all pay comparable salaries. Berman compares Darien to Norwalk when its convenient ie. population growth but argues that population declines in New Haven and other cities aren’t worthy of comparison. Property values have less to do with the costs of government than the perception of schools and other quality of life issues. A 4 BR 2 1/2 bath house in Darien on a 1/2 acre in a quiet residential neighborhood has a similar property tax as the same house in Norwalk . But the Darien property’s FMV is 50% more because more people want to live in Darien than Norwalk. If you ask Darien residents why they moved there 90% of them will cite the schools. Most of the people who I know that moved out of Norwalk did so because of concerns about the schools. If you want to undermine property values in Norwalk the best way is to underfund the schools.

  9. longtime resident

    Well, srb, we’re doing a good job of that. And it costs a heck of a lot more to educate poor children than those from the middle class.

  10. Bill

    Get rid of workforce housing, public housing, and welfare, and the cost of teaching norwalk’s kids goes down. The current model is not sustainable.

  11. Piberman

    To SRB

    Suggest you read the Arbitration Panel Report citing Norwalk’s 5th highest public school salaries. For a City ranking only 19th in income those salaries require punitive property taxes. Most City homeowners don’t have children in our public schools. Not so the rental population comprising one third our population. Do you really believe Norwalk is underfunding its schools ? The NFT states in their brief to the Panel that “Norwalk is one of the nation’s wealthiest communities”. But supplied no evidence for that absurd statement. Long term residents remember when the schools were highly praised. Maybe we had better teachers back then when salaries were quite modest.

  12. MarjorieM

    Berman, since your “good old days” when students were highly praised, the population in Norwalk has changed dramatically. This is just ONE example of your spin. White flight and private schools took most of our brightest students, students who came to school with fourth grade vocabularies.

    Why do Norwalk taxpayers need to pay more than the surrounding districts? Let me count the ways…….English language learners, some of whom come to the Norwalk Public Schools not knowing one word of English, more Special Education students, Summer School for those who don’t make the grade…..Out students need much more help than the wealthier districts. So, in some ways, we should be spending more taxpayers dollars to get enough resources to match the wealthy districts’ test scores. But then, the taxpayers would have to pay those in poverty for all the enrichment needed from birth to high school that the rich kids get.

    The only thing you do, Berman, is to chase away the great teachers in the district and to scare those applying for jobs here. Thanks a bunch!

  13. anon

    SRB correct, folks move to Darien & surrounding towns due to schools, leave Norwalk due to schools. Funding not the problem, results and low expectations are.

  14. Piberman

    Once again Marjorie aka Norwalk school teacher ignores the numbers. Norwalk pays higher teacher salaries than just about every one of the 169 towns in CT. Far more than the welfare cities where the needs are immeasurably greater. Are good teachers only motivated by dollars as Marjorie suggests ? If so then Norwalk should attract the best teachers in the state since our salaries are 5th highest. Even the highly political NFT doesn’t claim Norwalk teachers are among the very best. It just offers the preposterous claim that Norwalk is among the nation’s wealthiest communities. Read the Arbitration Report.

    Marjorie needs to look at census data. The proportion of college educated residents is actually increasing. Rather than “white flight” new Hispanic residents, many highly motivated and entrepreneurial, are moving here. It’s the children of long time residents who are leaving CT and Norwalk for better opportunities elsewhere. Not because of its schools. Even the population of the welfare cities is declining because of reduced opportunities. But CT’s public unions are doing very nicely. Especially its teachers among the highest paid in the nation. If good pay made for attracting good teachers CT would have one of the very best school programs in the nation. No wonder Norwalk teachers object vigorously against performance review. Why tie their high salaries to their overt performance ?

  15. srb

    PI Berman, what are the 10 highest paid areas for teachers? I don’t know if Norwalk has the 5th best, 20th best or 100 best teachers, I know that teacher pay has to be comparable to neighboring areas. I know what teachers in New Canaan, Westport, Fairfield, Stamford, Greenwich, Darien and Weston get paid and its in the same ballpark. The pay scales are almost the same the only difference lies in retention, degrees etc… since a district with a lot more older teachers will have a higher average. Every parent whom I’ve met who moved out of Norwalk did so because they wanted their children to be in a system that feels more supported. Your diatribe undermines its purpose by putting Norwalk into a vicious circle, lower taxes, poorer schools, lower property values, higher mil rates to make up for it, lower property values…ad nauseam. Good teaching is very related to town support. High test scores have much to do with the socioeconomic circumstances in ones area. If anything Norwalk needs to pay teachers higher because its harder to teach in Norwalk than Darien.

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