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Letter: Rilling failing to make budget-cutting moves

To the Editor:

The BET’s recommendation for almost a 3 percent increase of city taxes (and its certain approval by the Council) will encourage continued stagnation in city residential properties amidst a national housing recovery and economic recovery into its sixth year.

The growing disparity between the economic vitality of our neighboring towns and Stamford with Norwalk’s depressed condition will only accentuate. Over the past two decades city spending has surged 55 percent while per capita resident income has barely increased — up only about 10 percent. The main beneficiaries of that spending surge have been incomes of city workers — the highest paid of any city in the state. Witness our teacher salaries at fifth highest in the state. City workers return the favor by living elsewhere claiming Norwalk’s taxes are too high!

Mayor Rilling’s claim that 85 percent of the city budget is “mandated” merits attention. The obvious question is mandated by whom? city labor union contracts do not preclude reducing the labor force. The mayor is not precluded from asking city managers to do more with fewer resources — common practice in the private sector. Nor is the mayor precluded from hiring more competent city managers to replace our long tenured ones who only deliver the same services at ever higher cost. Nothing better illustrates the “Norwalk City Hall mentality” than observing what happened during the Great Recession. While cities across the nation were routinely decreasing their budgets Norwalk’s budget and taxes actually increased.

City officials have long complained about our inability to attract new business to Norwalk but seem oblivious to the destructive effectives of ever increasing city budgets in a community whose per captia income has barely grown. Stagnant property values and a declining Grand List serve as bellwethers to the business community to invest elsewhere. Readers of the recent Arbtritation Panel Report on the NFT Contract can learn the details on how Norwalk’s residential properties declined much more during the Great Recession than in surrounding towns. Norwalk’s depressed housing prices have a long history.

Mayor Rilling is continuing the budget and taxation policies of former Mayor Moccia — yearly increases in budget and taxation independent of the city’s near stagnant income growth. Even in real terms city spending is increasing as inflation averaged only about 1 percent the past year. The only way for Norwalk to avoid becoming a “failed city” is for BET and Common Council members to become much more involved in city budget and financing decisions. And to rethink the “wisdom” of rewarding city employees the highest salaries of any city in the state. By any reasonable standard Norwalk overspends relative to the income of its residents. A declining Grand List serves notice.

If Norwalk is to avoid further decline city officials need to mandate budgets that are affordable to the the fairly stagnant income levels of its residents — not the desires of its union employees for ever higher salaries that with benefits now average about $100,000. There’s no obvious benefit to the city with fifth highest paid teachers in the state nor $150,000 managers earning salaries well beyond what they can earn in the private sector. Nor routinely giving every employee raises independent of merit.

Norwalk has made great strides in recent years in rebuilding its public education system under the exceptional leadership of BEO Chairman Mike Lyons, who deserves credit for attracting one of the nation’s pre-eminent Superintendents. But even with these successes persistant stagnant property values — almost unique in the country according to Zilow reports — ought to remind us that Norwalk continues to remain an unattractive community to many potential home buyers. Contrary to the wishful thinking of many if not most of our elected officials there is no magic formula for attracting new business to ease the tax burden. But holding the city budget flat or even engineering modest reductions would demonstrate to both city residents and importantly to the outside world that Norwalk is indeed getting its fiscal house in order.

The “smart monies” are betting that like Humpty Dumpty all of Norwalk’s elected officials and city managers are unequal to that task. Norwalk was once a proud city where residents could not only retire but expect their children to settle here. That hasn’t been true for many years. The recent surge of rental housing being constructed in Norwalk ought to give even the most jaded city official pause. When a city is attractive only to renters, not prospective new home owners, its future is assured.

Mayor Rilling needs pay more attention to city finances and budgets. A good start that he understands the full dimensions of the problem would be hiring better city managers. And appointing the best available candidates to the BET with solid financial credentials — not the ex board chairman of NEON. Unless Mayor Rilling truly believes that city expenses are almost completely “mandated,” in which case Norwalk will surely become another Bridgeport — a city whose officials kept spending vigorously while the fortunes of its residents diminished. We still have many long term residents who fondly remember a vigorous Bridgeport — once Connecticut’s most prominent city.

Peter I Berman

Comments

14 responses to “Letter: Rilling failing to make budget-cutting moves”

  1. EveT

    Mr. Berman’s comments would be much more effective if he proposed positive solutions instead of just launching the same criticisms over and over.

  2. anonymous

    He does offer positive solutions. Quit raising taxes. Quit giving raises. Do more with less and do it better. Don’t consider a 3% tax increase, with nothing to show for it, a success.

  3. Taxpayer Fatigue

    The biggest culprit in our runaway taxes is the BOE, which is over 60% of the budget. There can’t be lower taxes in Norwalk without decreases in the BOE’s budget. The largest increase in spending in the BOE’s budget, not the city’s. That has been the case year after year, something Berman fails to address. I am also glad for Mike Lyons and Dr. Rivera’s intelligent leadership – I just hope we see actual results soon in terms of dramatically improved test scores and decreased costs from the BOE. As far as the City side goes, Berman needs to actually get involved, attend some BET meetings, get familiar with the actual details of the city budget and make some concrete recommendations about what city services he wants to eliminate. This Tea Party mentality of whining and jumping up and down without any real specifics is wearing thin.

  4. Don’t Panic

    Mr. Berman overlooks many other contributing factors. Traffic. Seriously declining city services that are basic to the city’s presentation like trash removal and paving. The byzantine approvals process for new building and businesses. Perceived crime issues. The lack of federal offices in Norwalk.
    He also misstates what city workers have said. They say the cost of living in Norwalk is too high, not just property taxes.
    Renters are residents too. They rent from property owners, who pay taxes.

  5. Peter Parker

    The Mayor and council should hear this. No new taxes period! Work with what you have. The people are tired. Get ready, here comes that flight I often speak of, and then we’re NorBridgeport!

  6. Piberman

    To all:
    There’s no magic to reducing City budgets. Private firms do it every day. And so many municipalities across America. One doesn’t have to attend public hearings to “tell” City officials and overpaid $150,000 administrators how to do their jobs. Here’s some obvious suggestions we can guarantee won’t be followed in Norwalk because its “too complicated” or that our budget is “mandated”.

    1. Ask City Dept. heads for budgets 5% below the previous year’s. Then accept them and let them know they’re responsible for doing the same job with fewer resources.
    2. Hire more competent City Dept. heads. No one hires Norwalk’s “top guns”. For good reason.
    3. Demand Council members appoint BET members with strong financial backgrounds. Not a failed NEON Board Chairman.demand BET members appoint a Chair with major league financial management background – not a local politician favored by the Mayor.
    4. Demand Council members appoint a Finance Committee head with a strong financial background. Not a former school teacher. That’s an obvious non- starter. Even for a reading teacher.
    5. Elect City officials who actually have financial backgrounds. And competence to both read and understand the City budget. At least one !
    6. Anyone who reads BET and Council minutes quickly understands why Norwalk’s government has the worst reputation for governance in the surrounding area. City financial decisions are made by a City employee – Mr Hamilton.
    7. What could a former senior level financial executive possibly tell Council members ? If they don’t even ask the relevant questions how could they digest the answers ? Non attendence by City residents at public meetings ought to embarrass City officials. But they take great pride in non-attendence.

    As long as City elected officials as a group lack a rudimentary knowledge and experience with financial matters the City will remain poorly governed. No where else is a former school teacher appointed to head a Council Finance Committee. Save Norwalk. And a Mayor unconcerned with financial matters.

    Finance is thee essential skill for City officials. Norwalk just hasn’t in the game. Taxpayers just can’t see the connection between elected officials who understand finance and good governance. So they their high taxes. Any resident with a MBA in finance could explain why.
    As far as one can see Norwalk’s governance will not receive kudos. Except from our politicians and City employees happily living in much better governed towns. Sadly a few decades ago we did have a reputation for one of CT’s best managed towns. Back then elected officials could read budgets. How do I know ? Well we used to attend meetings,ask questions and get detailed answers.

  7. Taxpayer Fatigue

    “Back then elected officials could read budgets. How do I know ? Well we used to attend meetings,ask questions and get detailed answers” according to Berman.

    Well said yourself. Stop whining and just do it!

  8. Taxpayer Fatigue

    Since you take the time to read minutes, you must understand that we have a “weak mayor/strong council” form of government. It is the Council who ultimately approves the budget, not the mayor. Last time I looked, we have a Republican-led majority on the council with Doug Hempstead leading the pack. Where is your letter demanding action to reduce the budget by the Republican-led council? Where is your letter citing Doug Hempstead’s lack of leadership in reducing the budget and therefore our taxes?

    Why weren’t you at the February 25, 2014 meeting of the Common Council when the budget cap was set, well above last year’s total? Why weren’t you there demanding answers from the Republican majority who approved the budget cap?

    You were a no show, because your letters are not really about reducing budgets and taxes, they are nothing more than partisan attacks on the Democratic Mayor, while you give free passes to the Republican-led BOE and Republican-led Common Council, who are ultimately the ones responsible for our budgets and high tax bills.

  9. Former BET Member

    For the record, per capita income is up 26% since 1994: $36,129 to $45,620 (in 2012). Also, Norwalk’s population has increased 11%: 78,450 to 87,190 (in 2012). School enrollment is up 10% as well. You can’t simply ignore population growth as a factor in the municipal budget increase.
    Equalized Net Grand List (total property value) has grown from $7,357 million to $16,560 million in that same period. Consequently, the mill rate is down from 1994. Non-education expenses are up 38%, about the same as population increase plus per-capita income increase (11% + 26% = 37%) Also, the city’s bond rating is AAA, up from Aa1.
    Per pupil education costs are another matter. They are up a lot. But they are about average for Connecticut cities over 70,000 in population.
    Anybody remember what gas prices were in 1994? A lot less than now. The city uses a lot of gas (school buses, snow plows, municipal vehicles) Ditto for heading oil. The point is that Norwalk is in Fairfield County and is not immune from either national inflation rates nor the high cost of living on the gold coast.

  10. Piberman

    Taxpayer fatigue:

    It’s blowing in the wind to critique Doug Hempstead on budget matters. Republicans led by Doug were indifferent under Mayor Moccia and they certainly haven’t changed their stripes now. But, and its big but, there’s a new Mayor not wedded to the past spending excesses. So the challenge is to get his attention. Uphill I’m afraid. When Republicans appoint a former reading school teacher to Chair the Council Finance Committee everyone knows its “full steam ahead”. Improving City finances requires electing Council members who understand basic finance and can read budgets.
    So far Norwalk residents have other ideas on Council qualifications.. But the Council
    Members are nice people. Just not the ones capable of overseeing City budgets. Until taxpayers elect financially competent Council members everyone should enjoy ever higher taxes and stagnant/lower property values. And the joy from paying top salaries to City workers mostly living outside of Norwalk to avoid our property taxes. It’s what sets Norwalk apart from other communities. Maybe we need require a course in finance to serve in the Council. Or a miracle.

  11. MODERN MAN

    There was a recent candidate for mayor who suggested Norwalk try something called “performance based budgeting.” He gave evidence that it was very successful in other municipalities that have tried it. Unfortunately, this particular candidate did not win the primaries.

  12. BET Finance 101

    @Former BET Member. Really? Assuming your data is correct do you care to share where you learned basic finance? First off millage and grand list are moot points. The dollars needed to feed the beast are all that matters. Bogus valuations and the resulting mill rate are simply the means to that end.
    *
    Then adding your 11% to the 26% growth in per capita income???? WHAT???? Adding apples to oranges won’t get you there. Your case would be a valid one if you discounted the 38% growth by 11% and you would arrive at 34% growth in government per capita. Or looked at another way our local government has grown 31% more than the private sector has in the same time period.
    *
    Adding insult to injury you aren’t even looking at the massive growth in our debt. I remind you that debt used to pay for big projects, but now is being spent on chrome books and other tchotchkes that won’t make a bit of a difference in educating children other than to the fact their futures are ones that will be enslaved to a mountain of debt that we racked up for them.

  13. Taxpayer Fatigue

    Sorry Berman, but that’s a cop out. The reality is that republicans don’t criticize other republicans – democrats have no problem criticizing each other – as evidenced by our own town democrats. If you showed up at BET and Council Meetings and demanded that at least the republican majorities on both the BET, the BOE, and the Council start behaving in a fiscally responsible manner it would probably make a difference. But instead, you’ve crowned the BOE as having this amazing turnaround all the while they are spending more money than ever, and then trying to blame our high taxes on the democratic mayor, who doesn’t even have a say on the spending cap. Deal with reality.

  14. Don’t Panic

    @Modern Man,
    So true. Also true is the fact that two common council members claim the city already does performance-based budgeting.

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