By Peter Berman
To the Editor:
NORWALK, Conn. – A recent Hour editorial cautioned that we should heed the lesson from Detroit. But it’s an old lesson – major industry leaves town, municipal unions demand and receive ever higher salaries and benefits, jobs are scarce, property values fall amidst rising taxes to fund city worker salaries/benefits, those who can move out to the suburbs where the jobs are while the city’s population shrinks amidst sharply rising property taxes. And property values plummet. A ghost town emerges.
It happened in nearby Bridgeport. Once the “arsenal of democracy” in World War II the once-proud and vibrant Bridgeport with its mighty factories and munitions plants is a mere vestige of its former glory. I still recall in the 1970’s when managing a large wire and cable factory in Brooklyn I was invited to visit U.S. Steel’s electric cable factory in Bridgeport. It was the largest in the world, making huge reels of oceanographic cables. Ed Politi, U.S. Steel’s cable manager and former fighter carrier pilot in the Pacific, had enormous pride in the Bridgeport cable plant. Some years later he called to say it was all sold to Japan – they took everything away. And mighty U.S. Steel was but a shell of its former glory.
Of course, Norwalk is neither Detroit nor Bridgeport. Norwalk is primarily a bedroom community highly dependent on the Stamford financial industry – one in long-term decline and located in a state that’s become a poster child for fiscal mismanagement with the nation’s lowest job growth. Norwalk’s most visible problem is stagnant resident property values amidst a national housing price resurgence. That has prompted an outpouring of “for sale” signs together with a pent-up demand by long-time residents anxious to move ensuring stagnant property values for years to come.
Surrounded by 5 of the wealthiest towns in America with superb public schools, Norwalk property values are acutely sensitive to property tax rates. Unfortunately, our elected leaders over recent decades have bestowed among the highest salaries/benefits upon our municipal workers in the state. So it’s no surprise that, with much higher property taxes financing much higher municipal union labor costs (fifth-highest paid teachers in the state), Norwalk’s property values are under siege. Moving in any direction means lower taxes and better schools – a winning combination.
Realistically there’s not much hope for improvement. Our elected officials promise “blue sky” increases in the grand list from new development. But the vacant lands along I-95 suggest a decades-long failure. Any lingering hopes for improvement were dashed with Norwalk’s ever-higher taxes and spending during the 2008 Great Recession.
Of course, not everyone is unhappy. Norwalk’s municipal workers remain among the best paid in the state. Most live out of town to avoid the high taxes.
As a group, city workers are the largest and best paid in the city, with average salaries/benefits near $100,000.
As long as both political parties are firmly committed to raising taxes and spending year in year out and unwilling to restrain union salaries/benefit increases, Norwalk’s property values will continue to stagnate at best and then decline further come the next economic downturn. The end result is an ever more transient community – reportedly the third most transient in the state. In a very real sense, Norwalk is truly held hostage by its municipal unions and elected officials’ inability or unwillingness to restrain taxes and spending. Unlike Detroit and Bridgeport, Norwalk faces an unrelenting slow decline, at least as measured in housing values. Local elections are unlikely to change the outcome.
The “shame of it is,” as my good friend the late Wally Clark used to say, is that long-term residents still remember when municipal workers were paid modest salaries, lived in the city, our schools were held in high esteem and retired residents could always count on selling their homes to live comfortably elsewhere. Now, most retired residents are held hostage to stagnant property values, and the highly paid municipal workers mostly live outside the city in less onerous taxed places. The surprise of it all is that we still take notice of our municipal elections guaranteeing the same results over and over again. Our local elections are the ultimate “reality show.” No matter who wins, the outcome is the same – higher taxes and stagnant/declining property values. Even the Realtors are complaining.