A host of medical and science experts have suggested we’ll be operating in a COVID-19 world for the next 18-24 months or until a vaccine, broad testing or herd immunity kicks in. We have no choice but to adapt lifestyles and bank accounts. For those wanting to remain in Connecticut, the virus exacerbated an already struggling economy. If we are ‘all in this together,’ then city and state officials must demonstrate with actions and not just words that we truly are. Extreme rhetoric from the right or left is not helpful and can’t be allowed to overshadow common sense practices regarding public health, safety and finance. Compromise, balance and pragmatism are NOT partisan words.
Somewhat uniquely, I’ve experienced the socially distanced mask and glove world, following a 2006 bone marrow transplant. Less exceptionally, coming from the private sector, I’m used to adjusting my household spending due to employment or economic conditions. That’s why in addition to safeguarding our public health, it’s EQUALLY important for elected leaders to take proactive steps to mitigate the financial struggle that lays ahead for residents and small businesses.
In addition to consistent enforcement of social distancing, city and state officials must demonstrate fiscal restraint, taking steps to revisit, prioritize and cut across the board non-essential financial burdens. Why? Because more than 22 million Americans have lost their jobs since federal and state governments mandated shelter in place and non-essential businesses shut down. Last month, Connecticut’s unemployment claims climbed to 400,000—representing nearly 23 percent of the private sector workforce. We don’t know the exact fall-out in Norwalk yet, but it’s hard to imagine us escaping the fallout.
The National League of Cities forecasts 300,000 to 1 million public sector workers impacted nationwide because of the private sector’s rise in unemployment. That’s why, with over 85 percent of Norwalk funded by local residents and small business, it’s imperative city hall consider the following measures:
- City & BOE Personnel Wage Freezes: Timelines for public employee salary increases must be reexamined, as already done in the private sector. Scheduled collective bargaining must not occur until after the COVID-19 crisis has passed and economy has returned to normal.
- Real City Hall Cuts: Relying on the Rainy Day fund, without genuinely ‘sharing the burden’ is not fair. Labor concessions must be made, in addition to examining jobs that should be furloughed, reduced or eliminated due to the virus’s two-year window. Senior staff should take salary cuts. Lead from the top down.
- Education: Legislative energies must be directed towards state funding for increased English Language Learner (ELL) students versus pursuing a new high school and adding more local debt. ALL school initiatives must be revaluated.
- Automobiles & Parking: Lost revenue resulting from residents not giving up their New York license plates must be addressed. A moratorium on parking fees for the Washington and Wall Street areas encourages local business patronage.
- Development: Suspend any NEW taxpayer-funded incentive programs in the pipeline by whatever name city hall wants to call them. This includes property tax incentives previously known as the Innovation District, Real Estate Tax Credit, Enterprise Zone, Low Income Tax Credits, etc.
A byproduct of single party rule is that the people’s business is often conducted in caucus, behind closed doors and outside public view. COVID-19 has exacerbated the not so imaginary line between government and the people, flying in the face of democracy, critical discussion and fairness.
Turning to Hartford
This fall, I encourage both party’s candidates to advocate for:
- Improved fiscal management and belt tightening in Hartford, rather than shifting state burdens to municipalities
- Better policies supporting businesses and jobs in the private sector, as much as state and local government
- Balanced state education and housing policies as to not disproportionately and negatively impact Norwalk
Nowhere is Norwalk’s lack of advocacy more visible than in our Education Cost Share (ECS) funding and lack of financial support for English Language Learner (ELL) students. At the same time, Hartford pushes for increased density in Fairfield County at Norwalk’s expense, disproportionately impacting finances and quality of life. Balance, fairness and equity should be the mantra of any elected official representing our great city. We’re six largest in population and eighth largest in state tax contributions, yet see virtually no return on our tax dollars, despite rising school poverty. This lack of equity, disproportionately impacts our budget and ability to service other city obligations. We need responsible management and belt-tightening, because IF we truly are ‘all in this together’ then officials must do more than extend thoughts and prayers – like enduring the same sacrifices those longing to remain in our city and state are making.