Norwalk BET debates ‘surplus’ spending for firehouse, flooding

Finance Director Thomas Hamilton
Norwalk Finance Director Thomas Hamilton talks to the Board of Estimate and Taxation on Monday in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – A debate about spending “surplus” city dollars accompanied the first approval needed for more than $1.8 million in Norwalk Fire Department and Norwalk Department of Public Works expenditures Monday evening.

Board of Estimate and Taxation member Anne Yang-Dwyer questioned the “need” to spend money that is left over from under-budget projects rather than make it available to other departments through the capital budget process. Nevertheless, the requests to fund a study for a fire services and emergency response in the Westport Avenue/Cranbury neighborhood, renovations to the dilapidated New Canaan Avenue firehouse and measures to address flooding were approved, to be sent on to the Planning Commission and Common Council.

“Where we find surpluses, surpluses in some ways should stay with the city in some fashion rather than the surpluses finding another way to be spent otherwise,” Yang-Dwyer said. “I’m not suggesting that this happens here, but if I were a manager it incents me to pad my budgets a little bit more, then I have surpluses and then I spend them in other places.”

Norwalk Fire Chief Denis McCarthy explained that $400,000 of the surplus he is seeking to spend stems from a cancelled renovation of the Westport Avenue firehouse; after $100,000 was spent on architectural renderings for the firehouse, the bids came in much higher than expected, more than the $1 million that was planned for, he said. The other $569,092 surplus is left over from the building of the new Connecticut Avenue firehouse, he said.

The $35,000 study would address the response times in Cranbury, which are the longest in the city, Finance Director Thomas Hamilton said. Possible options would be to build a sixth firehouse in Cranbury, which would “have a very high operating cost,” relocating the Westport Avenue firehouse north, “some sort of renovation at Westport Avenue” or do nothing, he said.

The New Canaan Avenue firehouse was built in 1964, McCarthy said.

Norwalk Fire Chief Denis McCarthy
Norwalk Fire Chief Denis McCarthy talks to the Board of Estimate and Taxation on Monday in City Hall.

“Much of the equipment and infrastructure over there is 50 years old. When things broke, they were abandoned,” McCarthy said. “… The building slowly degraded and hasn’t been overhauled in its lifespan. So all of the window systems, all of the HVAC systems, the doors, walls and bathrooms are all 50 years old and you can imagine, much of it is functional, but much of it isn’t functional.”

A new $934,092 special appropriation would renovate that firehouse and upgrade facilities at the Meadow Street firehouse and the facility at 100 Fairfield Avenue, he said.

Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord explained that the $867,155 surplus from the Buckingham/Lockwood drainage improvement project, which was planned in 2007, was a matter of timing.

“The construction market went into the tank; by the time we got this out onto the street the construction market had bottomed out and the contractors were just hungry. So we got much better pricing than we had anticipated,” he said.

His initial comment that “outstanding management” was the reason for the surplus was treated as a joke, but Alvord said, “We did have our most experienced project manager supervisor there, so when we encountered a lot of underground utilities on East Avenue, for example, that we didn’t realize were there, we had somebody there that could work with those things and not generate extra costs just trying to deal with water pipes that we didn’t know about and those kinds of things. So it was a combination of the economy and pretty decent management, quite honestly.”

“If there is a surplus then the surplus should go back into the account and a capital appropriation should go through the capital budget process and not be taken as a side process as a special capital appropriation,” Yang-Dwyer said. “It should all go back into some kind of account and these capital expenses should be weighed in balance with all the other capital request of the city.”

“I don’t think that’s an unreasonable position for somebody to take, which is why I pointed out that the closeout process and the re-appropriation process are separate and distinct processes and separate votes,” Hamilton said.

“I can’t say that’s a wrong argument,” Hamilton said, but McCarthy has his study ready to go, and the New Canaan Avenue firehouse is in the long-range capital budget.

Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling debates a point at Monday’s Board of Estimate and Taxation meeting in City Hall.

Mayor Harry Rilling called it an unusual situation, with a firehouse in “dire need of repair.”

“Sometimes you have to make a decision outside the process because it’s the right thing to do,” Rilling said.

The capital budget process provides for incremental funding as money is set aside for a project over several years, he said. “I think this is an opportunity to get the project done in one fell swoop when probably, in today’s dollars, three, four, five years down the road we may end up spending more,” he said.

It would go through the capital budget process as it heads to the Planning Commission and Common Council, Director of Management and Budgets Bob Barron said.

“I think it’s good to look at process, continue to look at process even when there are special circumstances,” BET Chairman Jim Clark said.

Yang-Dwyer abstained on that one. Greg Burnett, Jim Feigenbaum, Clark and Rilling voted for it; Erik Anderson and Ed Camacho were absent.

Yang-Dwyer said the money left over from the $3.4 million Buckingham/Lockwood drainage project was 25 percent of what had been appropriated. She asked at what level a project would go through a special review.

“These two projects, which are coming out of process, are about 10 percent of the total capital budget. So at what level is it? Is it $100,000, 1 percent of the capital budget, where you can make these kinds if almost interagency transfers, and at what point in time do you send it back to the pool and it goes through the capital budgeting process by which all capital projects are weighed in its own right?” Yang-Dwyer asked.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a percentage or a dollar level,” Hamilton said.

The drainage work had been requested by DPW in next year’s capital budget and funding it with the surplus keeps that budget down, he said.

Flooding had been the “hottest topic” several years ago, and a commitment had been made to appropriate money on an ongoing basis, he said. It’s still going through the same process, he said.

Yang-Dwyer said the “sidestep” preempts committees from evaluating requests in total, to weigh one request against another.

“In terms of process, this is something that we have done for many years, this exact process, but I think it certainly merits being looked at to see if it can be approved,” Clark said.

Rilling said if it were done the way Yang-Dwyer were suggesting the ideas suggested wouldn’t be considered until next year, because the capital budget process is already under way.

Plus, “You can’t make a hard, fast rule on a percentage or amount because things are situational and we do have these things that happen, we have to have the flexibility to make the best decisions that are in the interest of the budget, in the best interest of the city and it does go through the process,” he said.

The approval of the flooding appropriation was unanimous.


One response to “Norwalk BET debates ‘surplus’ spending for firehouse, flooding”

  1. Mike Mushak

    As a long time advocate of improving process, especially over in our Planning and Zoning Department that has fallen short when it comes to taking responsibility to plan the city professionally, I see Ms. Yang-Dwyer’s point, but I also agree with Mayor Rilling that these issues are “situational” considering ongoing priorities. It was an interesting debate to witness last night (I was the only member of the public in the audience besides the 2 reporters) and I think everyone did a great job of expressing their points of view, including Ms. Yang-Dwyer.

    On another note, I really think we need to find the money in the budget to hire a much-needed Civil Engineer for DPW. The current staff is overworked, and every year we give them more and more responsibilities as the city increases spending on infrastructure projects that DPW has to manage. Also, most permit applications for new construction or renovations all over the city including many new large developments need DPW review, and the delays often hold up new projects which is not good for our grand list or our economic development. It is clearly a good investment to make for the city, and to take the pressure off our current staff who are clearly stressed out trying to keep up with it all.

    When Taylor Avenue was repaved and new sidewalks installed, we saw firsthand how much work was involved, and our neighborhood association actually helped DPW staff deal with neighbors and zoning issues like illegal curb cuts. It took a lot of time and every meeting we had at DPW looked like Grand Central Terminal with a constant flow of staff in and out and frequent interruptions with crises out in the field which always come up in construction. It is basically crisis management as much as project management, and a new Civil Engineer will help immensely.

    I hope our Finance Director can figure out a way to fund a new position at DPW without affecting the overall budget. Now there is a challenge!

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