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
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