NORWALK, Conn. – Mayor Richard Moccia batted 1.000 Wednesday night, responding to 100 percent of the citizens who criticized him at a public hearing – few as they were.
Only a few members of the public attended the Board of Estimate and Taxation hearing, the paucity made even more obvious by the fact that it was held in Concert Hall, the scene of many raucous budget hearings last year. Four people spoke to the city officials on the stage. Two were, themselves, city officials, one summoned to the microphone by Moccia.
Environmental activist Diane Lauricella and Lisa Thomson, a fiscal conservative fighting for education reform, took on the chore of criticizing city business.
Lauricella came first, successfully wrangling an extra two minutes for her comments from BET Chairman Fred Wilms. She lauded the city for the expected savings from single-stream recycling, while saying the projected $1 million was probably an underestimate, then said it was time to increase those saving by bringing recycling to the schools.
Then came less conciliatory comments. “If we were to increase enforcement of our zoning regulations and noise I believe that we would be able to increase revenue, increase our grand list,” she said.
Zero-based budgeting would save money, she said, going on to cite examples of “poor management of staffing.”
“There is currently no senior staff review being done by the zoning commission,” she said. “That, in essence, would get us the best bang for the buck. … Some of those staff will tell you they’re salaried staff, but the thing is they do take time off – they don’t get paid, but they do take paid holidays or paid vacation days for the extra time they spend sitting at meetings.”
Moccia called Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene to the microphone “just for clarification.”
“How many cases do you currently have with zoning right now, working with the health department and the court system?” Moccia asked.
“Total, 700,” Greene said.
“We do pursue zoning violations when reported?” Moccia asked.
“Yes,” Greene replied.
“Do we have the ability to assess fines?” Moccia asked.
“We try,” Greene said. “But the court doesn’t always enforce that, so in the end it’s a draw.”
Lastly, Moccia asked, “Do you think it’s improper if somebody works at a staff meeting in the evening that they take their own vacation day?”
“They’re not allowed to and they don’t do it,” Greene said.
Then it was Thomson’s turn. She first urged the board to find some money for the school system, while acknowledging the problems inherent in the state’s reconfiguration of the ECS (Educational Cost Sharing) formula — the fact that nobody knows how much money Norwalk will actually get this year.
The BET finds money for Oak Hills golf course and “building a very beautiful fire house,” she said, concluding the thought with, “The BET sends the message that it doesn’t care about reform if we don’t come up with some sort of compromise.”
She then reminisced about former Superintendent Susan Marks, a “real pioneer” in reform.
“If this administration had been a little more supportive of our former superintendent, we might have a little more money this year because she was very good at getting money from private donors,” she said.
That includes about $5 million the city will see coming in over the next few years, she said, also mentioning the amount of money spent on yet another superintendent search.
Moccia defended his management again.
“I supported Dr. Marks,” he said. “I’m not going to get defensive. It was her decision (to resign). She did not report to me, she reported to the Board of Education, so to say that the city did not support – I think if you talk to Dr. Marks you might get a different idea of our personal communications.”
Lastly, Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons said there has been some “very good brainstorming” this year between the city’s financial staff and the BOE’s financial staff.
“The only issue that’s really disturbing to me is the incredible shell game we are getting out of the state this year,” he said. “Quite frankly, I wish the state had simply done nothing (with ECS). … I know (Finance Committee Chairman) Mike Barbis has been in constant contact with the state for days to try to figure out what is going on and they don’t know.”
Both Lauricella and Thomson made note of the poor turnout.
“I would not read that as being totally satisfied with everything in Norwalk,” Lauricella said. “.. I think the parents at the Board of Ed, they have to make time to look at the other budgets. They’ve been assured, probably, all of their needs will be funded, but that’s probably not a given.”
Thomson said she is up on ECS, but many parents can not follow it.
“I hope you would appreciate, we have not tried to whip up a bunch of parents,” she said. “A lot of parents aren’t here because they don’t really understand it. … They won’t understand it until we feel the impact of not getting the money.”