No budget cap yet from agonized Council members as Grand List is again delayed
NORWALK, Conn. — Common Council members pushed their budget cap decision back another week Tuesday after being presented with an unfinished Grand List calculation, even if the deadline for its completion had passed.
In addition to many pleas from parents for school funding and Council responses detailing the difficulty of the task, sharp words were again aimed at Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz and Tax Assessor William Ford.
“I have lost complete and utter faith in you and Bill Ford to give us true numbers for us to do our job,” Nicol Ayers (D-District A) said. “…Mr. Dachowitz, with all respect, I have lost faith in you and I have lost faith in your ability to run the City’s financial department.”
Three Council members called the delay “unacceptable.”
At issue is the Board of Education’s request for a 12.7% operating budget increase, fueled partly by the “flat funding” in 2020-21, when the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) provided no increase to Norwalk Public Schools in light of huge amounts of federal aid due to the pandemic.
Mayor Harry Rilling’s recommended operating budget calls for a 4% increase to the school district and a .75% increase for City-side services. The City budget benefits from a $12 million drop in employee expenses, $5.2 million due to an error that sent co-pays to the Board of Education, not the City-side health plan and $8 million due to OPEB (Other Post-Employment Benefits) trust fund’s value increasing in fiscal years 20 and 21, while the liability decreased.
Those are “one-time sources of revenue,” and Norwalk will be starting its next budget season “in the hole,” Council member Tom Livingston (D-District E) observed.
Dachowitz agreed, saying the OPEB expense will probably increase $8-9 million next year. Capital expenditures are also an issue as, “I would expect the debt service to go up.”
By State law, a municipality cannot decrease its school budget from the previous year. Yet, three Council members said a 4% increase is not enough. More than one called the 20-21 flat funding a mistake.
It’s not in their hands, it’s the BET’s responsibility to allocate funds and all the Council can do is set a budget cap, they said.
The Council plans to vote on a budget cap Tuesday March 7, on the deadline set by the charter but well after the tradition of doing it in mid-February.
Parents argue their case
Themes emerged during the Council meeting; multiple parents focused on mental health in the wake of the pandemic, some using their own lives to illustrate the need.
“I don’t know a whole lot about a lot of things. There are a handful of things I know about. One of those things is trauma: I lost a stepsister to a suicide overdose,” Justin Matley said. “My other sister was in rehab for 12 years off and on for heroin and fentanyl.”
If it weren’t for the help he got growing up, he wouldn’t be a successful businessman today, he said.
“A huge percent of our population, if not a majority of our population, needs those school hours to attend to their needs, whether they’re academic, or whether they’re social, emotional,” he said. “…We’re living in a time of trauma.”
“Our youngest community members will be the ones affected most by the lack of funding. As I’m sure you all know, there’s a mental health crisis,” Sarah Lechanski said.
“It’s not just COVID, kids can’t go to school without being afraid of getting shot and killed at school,” Susan Patrignelli said.
Others spoke of numbers.
“We were the only community that ‘zeroed out’ two years ago, everybody else got something. And so that hole really does need to be filled,” Merlin Mitchell said.
Sarah McIntee called it “problems of our own making, because we flat funded the schools two years ago.”
She said, “I hear a lot of things about needs and wants… where’s the fat people spend so much time talking about, wants versus needs? No one can actually pinpoint abuse of funds.”
There wouldn’t be a discussion about the 4% “if we were talking about the fire or police departments,” Talia Giedeman said. “We’re discussing this because you all think we can trim the fat from our children. Because they don’t have the voices to come up here and face you.”
Bridget Kennedy said she has professional experience with budgeting and when there are finite funds, priorities are set. Given the delta between the ask and the recommendation, the school needs are “on the bottom of your priority list.”
Azra Asaduddin cited the efficiency study released last year as saying the school system is working efficiently.
“I don’t think it’s as simple as raising private property taxes,” she said. “I feel like that’s a false choice. I feel like there’s a lot of strange and nebulous things that happens to the money. And I also feel like other parts of City government just don’t seem to get nickeled and dimed as much as the schools do.”
This version, that version
Ford got a one-month extension on the State deadline to file a Grand List, Dachowitz said. The numbers he presented were “version number four” but he and Ford were working on “version number five.”
In version four, “the total grand list assessed values for real estate personal property, as well as motor vehicles was $15.073 billion,” Dachowitz said. “… The average mill rate for the whole city would be 25.463, an increase of .777 mils, or 3.15%.”
The 2021 Grand List was $15.1 billion.
“I will be redoing these charts with the latest and greatest Grand List numbers,” Dachowitz said, promising a finalized version Wednesday and adding, “you do have a week to deliberate.”
Ayers spoke first.
“I feel like Demi Moore in Bad Lighting,” she said. As a woman who has earned a master’s degree and is working on a doctorate, “I simply understand that two plus two equals four. This foolishness that you present to us week after week after week is ad nauseam, you cannot expect for the City to accept your below par reaction and work… you can’t uphold your own deadlines.”
Ford explained that the tax offices had upgraded their financial management system while simultaneously “converting to a new assessment administration system called Quality Data Systems.” As the real estate data was being transferred, “we discovered some issues with properties that were exempt, or should have been exempt that were identified as taxable.”
Meaning, the Grand List calculation is going to decrease. Ford estimated a .75% drop.
Council member David Heuvelman (D-District A) called it “unacceptable” that the public came to speak and the Council didn’t have the information.
Dachowitz said the “error” was in the Council attempting to set a cap ahead of March 7.
“It’s always the pattern and practice of this process that the cap is set typically on the second Tuesday of February. So to have an October surprise like this, in February, is wholly unacceptable and frankly amateur hour,” Council member Josh Goldstein (D-At Large) said.
“This is my sixth budget cycle here on the Common Council, I have been following the school budget for 15 years, 12 years,” Council member Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. We always set the cap on the second week, second meeting of February. We are required by charter to set it no later than March 7. I can’t say any more in terms of my feelings and how irritated and angry I am right now. But this is unacceptable.”
Mayor Harry Rilling said nothing during the discussion. On Wednesday, he wrote, “It is not my policy to discuss personnel issues in the media. When and if issues need to be addressed, I deal with them with the employee in an appropriate manner based on the situation.”
‘A balancing act’
“This is by far the most difficult budget season I have experienced, and emotions are running really high,” Smyth said.
Smyth, a retired teacher, said that if Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon and Norwalk Association of School Administrators (NASA) President Lynne Moore think 4% isn’t enough, then “That’s really meaningful to me.”
Council member Bryan Meek (R-District D) pointed out that the teachers union contract is up for negotiation and, “I’m guessing in an 8% inflationary environment, they’re not going to come in asking for 2%.”
Council member Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large) sought to “contextualize some of the reasons that our Council are so particularly concerned about getting accurate tax rates here and really understanding the impacts.”
Norwalk’s highly prized diversity includes “an enormous range of income from low to high,” and while working families “make significantly less than a living wage for the city,” housing costs have “skyrocketed,” she said. “The living wage for Norwalk is now higher than our median household income for Norwalk.”
Council members are “deeply concerned about maintaining the diversity of the city” but “that does not mean that our schools are not worth investing in. That does not mean that we are not deeply committed to our schools, but it means it is a balancing act that we have to wrestle with in this budget process,” she said.
It’s tough because “Connecticut has some of the most restrictive laws on municipal revenues of any place in the nation,” Niedzielski-Eichner said. “This has a large part to do with our historical, in my opinion, absurd decision to get rid of counties and the way that that was handled back in the 1950s…. We are essentially limited to a single property tax rate for all personal and private and real property, regardless of income or ability to pay regardless of the value of that property. We cannot increase the amount of tax credits that we provide our low-income residents; that is set by state law, we cannot raise it. We cannot increase our local sales tax. We can’t impose a local hotel tax, we cannot increase local transfer taxes.”
That’s why the decision is “really wrenching for all of us,” she said. “Students who most need these services are the students who will be further traumatized by evictions, by loss of housing, by our inability to invest in affordable housing, because we are investing in our school system.”
Heuvelman said, “I look at my own district. And I see numbers that are untenable for people who live in that district.”
“We have more parents of young children on this Council than I think we’ve had in years,” said Jenn McMurrer (D-District C). “So we have education advocates on this council. And I just want to make sure that you are all coming and advocating for that priority list to the BOE as well, because we can’t have everything.”
Ayers said she doesn’t agree with a 4% increase to the schools but 12% is “just not tangible.”
Niedzielski-Eichner echoed that sentiment and then returned to facts. The efficiency study was based on the 21-22 school year but NPS added 90 positions in 22-23, she said.
Since 18-19, the City has increased its full-time equivalent positions by 32 and in the same time period, the school district has increased its full-time equivalent positions by 377, she said.
The way NPS has explained its use of ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds “is not in fact transparent and accurate entirely to what happened,” Niedzielski-Eichner said. NPS took 47 employees out of its regular budget and supported them with ESSER but also funded 10 new positions and “that is a material difference that is not was not transparently presented to the Council and to the public.”
Ayers said Council members are “overly invested” in the schools, not only the children but the staff and the school environments. “They said that we nickel and dime the Board of Ed, in all actuality, we nickel and dime the City a lot more than we nickel and dime the Board of Ed. And there’s empirical evidence to prove that we really do nickel and dime the City-side a lot more than we do the Board of Ed.”
Correction, 10:39 p.m.: Kristen Penta is a friend of Cora’s mother.
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Justin Matley March 2, 2023 at 8:47 am
I ask several questions of both sides, and one of which – to the CC – is their evidence of improper spending. The top 3 I receive are below, with their portion of the operating budget.
Family center – 165k/yr ~0.1%
School choice transportation – 87k/yr ~0.05%
Asst super intendants ~600k ~0.35%
Total: 0.5% of operating budget
Even if you add in the 10 counselors Nora references above: 1.2MM ~0.5%
So now we’re at 1%.
What’s left? I don’t know, that’s all I’ve gotten. And it’s small potatoes. If you’re going to claim NPS is misspending money – and that’s fine if you feel it is the case – then show us the money.
You may not agree with curriculum decisions or programming or specific hires, or whatever, but that’s not the CC’s purview. We may disagree with how the super runs her business, but that’s for the BOE to consider as they ingest public sentiment. We can all disagree perhaps with how someone is sound their job, but when it comes to the budget, it is the Council who caps budget.
Jenn McMurrer March 2, 2023 at 10:01 pm
@Justin – I would love to be able to answer this and I will say this. Several of my colleagues and I have asked questions for breakdowns of the BOE recommended budget about staffing and fringe benefits most recently. We have asked for a breakdown of staffing that directly services our students vs. not. Time-and-time again we are not given these answers, or we are directed to the BOE budget book, which we have reviewed many many times, which is how we came to these questions in the first place. I have asked individual BOE members for these answers, many of them have either not responded or have told me they cannot get the answers. Maybe there is no misspending, I hope that is the case, however, when someone or several someones refuse to share what I feel are simple answers you start to wonder why. I hear all the time from teachers and principals across the district that new people are being hired and they have no idea what they do or how they are going to help them or the students, but rather, they have different priorities and place priorities on the teachers, which vary greatly. Again, I hope I’m wrong, but if the numbers are necessary, why not prove it and answer the questions. I become leery when anyone backs away from sharing information or answer questions. And it would not be responsible of us a council to approve funds without these answers. Again, I hope I’m wrong, but without these answers I can’t say whether I am or am not and I don’t make decisions on assumptions, it’s dangerous.
Erica M DePalma March 3, 2023 at 7:57 am
Good morning Jenn, the stats in the article above provide responses to Nora’s questions from Mid-day Monday, aside from that, I’m unaware of any additional open questions. Can you email them to me directly and I’ll get them answered? As previously noted, we cannot provide a list of specific staff impacted by potential cuts.
Drew Todd March 3, 2023 at 9:05 am
@Jenn THANK YOU! For standing up and asking the right questions and demanding answers!!! It has been proven again that Estrella can not be trusted and is clueless when it comes to finances. The Rubber Stamp BOE could sit there and try to justify the waste of funds she has been doing since her tenure began. She is LUCKY to be receiving another $9 Million! And at the rate we are loosing staff, another teacher up and left BMHS yesterday she will be able to meet the “Contractual” Obligations. But unfortunately she will need to cut all of her Socialist & WOKE Programs. However, in case no one noticed we are receiving $2 Million for a PARKING LOT and wait for it…MORE Apartments!!!!! But let’s have people like Justin cry about not funding our schools properly..Yeah OK..NO!
Justin Matley March 3, 2023 at 6:28 pm
@Drew – you show your decency claiming that I cry for much of anything. If you read anything I write, vs seeing my name and judging immediately, you’ll see I’m open to any number of compromises and “blame” (of which there’s plenty to go around). I’ve asked the same questions of both sides (again, if you’ve read anything I’ve written) and merely reporting what I’ve been told. If you find that distasteful, you are welcome to take it up with those that are saying it. At the end of the day, we should be solutionists – even Jenn admits 4% isn’t enough. So, let’s see what makes sense for CC and go from there. That’s the game every year, and it’s no different this year.
Bryan Meek March 5, 2023 at 9:52 pm
Self importance knows no bounds.