By Matthew Allen
A recent article on NancyonNorwalk.com covered Mayor Rilling’s attendance at a Harvard University seminar for newly-elected mayors. I think it is great he took advantage of this opportunity to improve his knowledge and I hope it benefits the city as a whole. In offering the reporter some insight into his experience at the seminar, “he said there was a general agreement that the three things the public are most concerned with are education, safety and quality of life.” Now I recognize that he was probably oversimplifying things. At least I hope he was. And this isn’t about him as much as it is a general mentality within government: that the public only seems to care about what government provides and not what it costs.
All three of those issues are completely obvious, are they not? Of course education, safety and quality of life are what we all look at when choosing where to live. Everyone wants top notch education, a high degree of safety and good quality of life. But what’s missing here? The cost in actual money, taxes. And when you mix taxes into the equation you get something called value. Education, safety and quality of life are great, but at what cost? Are we getting good value for our money?
Many would like to think that you simply can’t put a price on the value of education, safety and quality of life. But that would be deluding ourselves. As we see in other communities that have been down this path, once the tax situation becomes overly burdensome and residents begin to derive less perceived value for their money, the desire to live elsewhere mounts. As sales increase, property values suffer. And when property values suffer, it is only a matter of time before the ability to pay for education, public safety and quality of life is undermined. It becomes a vicious circle that we simply cannot allow.
Norwalk, like many cities, has some very tough choices to make in the coming years. How much is too much when it comes to taxes? How much of our city budget should be spent on education in the never ending effort to close the “achievement gap”? In the absence of ever increasing taxes, how much of our tax dollars will be diverted from one department or program to another in order to make up a perceived shortfall? More than 60 percent of our city budget is related to public education whereas 20 years ago it was below 50 percent. Based on today’s annual budget of $310 million, that 10 percent difference equates to roughly $30 million. That’s $30 million that could be spent on safety, quality of life or a myriad of other city services, or simply not be collected from taxpayers to begin with. I’m not trying to pick on education, but it is far and away the single biggest line item and has this odd tendency of consuming more of our total budget over time.
What is our plan and where is the vision for a future beyond the next two years? Norwalk is a city of about 85,000 people. Do we want the city to expand in terms of population? If so, how will that be managed? Should it be managed? What would Norwalk look like if the population was 100,000 or more? How will it look in terms of socio-economic demographics and what effect will that have on both the revenue and expense sides of the ledger? Taxes are based on property values, but city services are based on the number of inhabitants. A residence with 3 inhabitants generates the same tax revenue as it would if it was occupied by 4, 5 or 10 people. However, the effect on city services, namely schools, is decidedly different. Norwalk needs to wise up to the fact that it cannot continue to support ever expanding growth in high-density residents without greatly, not just marginally, greatly expanding the tax base.
All candidates run for office by promising to “make things better”, and campaign promises about potholes and sidewalks and civility are wonderful. But in the grand scheme of things, these are small-scale issues that divert our attention from what are truly significant, long-term issues that need to be resolved. While Norwalk may need some short-term Band-Aids as part of a triage effort, what we really need are leaders who are focused on more than just the next two years. That is awfully hard for politicians who are constantly at the mercy of voters with short attention spans. And that is why we need leaders, not just politicians.
This city needs a grand plan that can survive changes in city leadership and it needs it sooner rather than later. We need to start envisioning what Norwalk is going to look like in 2025 or 2035, well beyond the terms of those currently in office. We need to stop being overly reactionary to the issue du jour and start being proactive about the very real, very significant issues that are going to shape the future of this city. Most importantly, we need to get serious about how we are going to fund this city and what percentage of the population is going to pay for that. Because education, safety and quality of life don’t take care of themselves. Somebody pays for it.