Rilling promises another approach
NORWALK, Conn. — After an intense two weeks of scrubbing City-side budgets, Board of Estimate and Taxation members found that the resultant $393,000 in reductions was offset by $188,000 in increased heating and electricity costs.
Hearing that news Monday, BET members continued squeezing City-side departments, looking for savings here and savings there in their zeal to lower the tax levy. It’s a frugality has some parents up in arms, as though the Common Council recently set a budget cap $1 million higher than recommended by Mayor Harry Rilling due to concerns about education funding, BET members feel no obligation to spend the money.
“I would like to see us come in at a budget that does not allocate that million, does not use that million dollars,” BET Chairman Ed Abrams said Monday.
Rilling agreed. By the end of the discussion, Abrams said the BET’s tentative budget would come in $695,000 below Rilling’s recommendation and $1,695,000 below the maximum set by Council members.
But Rilling offered hope for parents.
“My team and I have been working on a couple of creative ways that we may be able to move forward with a little bit more funding” that will not set a higher Minimum Budget Requirement (MBR),” Rilling said March 15.
MBR is an issue year after year. The City cannot, by law, decrease the Board of Education’s budget.
On Monday, Rilling said, “We don’t have it ironed out yet. But I do have a plan ahead that is going to assist the Board of Education, but not affect the MBR. So that is something that probably I should be announcing in the next couple of days.”
The BET is holding a public hearing on its planned operating budget at 6:30 p.m. tonight, March 22, in the Council chambers. The BET must send its planned budget to the Council on Monday.
Budget reviews began March 9 with the BET looking at the Fair Rent Department’s plan for a 10% cut from last year, and then asking Norwalk Chief of Community Services Lamond Daniels to explain why there was an increase in “other contractual services.”
Daniels said that the new Fair Rent staff member was getting a lower salary than his predecessor, helping account for the decrease. But he felt a part-time attorney is needed to stay on as a consultant because “we really need that higher level of legal expertise” from someone who specializes “in these types of hearings,” as opposed to the City’s legal department. “We suspect, as evictions are going up … that we will need more support.”
He also said $15,000 was going to a language line which has seen an increase in demand, and with the City’s new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer at work, all the City departments should be promoting the service.
In what became a theme, BET member James Frayer asked Daniels if his department’s budget was on “autopilot,” if numbers had been plugged in from the previous year’s budget without review.
Daniels agreed that most numbers were consistent and said he would have to confirm percentages from year to year.
Kendrick Constant, recently appointed to the BET, asked about an increase in part time wages. The City has hired a part-time ADA coordinator after “trying to fill that position for many years,” Daniels replied.
Abrams eventually asked Daniels to “please come back to us and confirm you’ve looked at FY 23 actuals to set your FY 24 budget targets.” Frayer asked about postage and said, “None of these are real big dollars…. I don’t mean to be beating you up.”
Daniels spoke of needing to send things via certified mail and promised to get back to the BET with numbers.
It continued like that.
Dave Walenczyk, Youth Services Director, defended his budget as not being a carbon copy of last year’s by pointing out that the mileage line had changed. It used to have $1,200 budgeted but last year only $84 was spent, he said. However, “this is the first year we’re really kind of fully getting back on track after COVID. And some of these accounts were impacted by COVID…. there are years when we spend very little on advertising. That’s primarily for recruitment reasons. And then this year, we had a lot of turnover, we had three or four staff leave this past year.”
As other department heads got grilled, Abrams repeatedly suggested they wait to fill new positions until the second quarter of the year, to save money.
The Code Enforcement Department defied Rilling’s request to keep budget hikes to 3.5% by requesting an additional $1.4 million.
“We have been under staffed for quite a while and … not easy for us to pull in part time help at this level,” Chief Building Official Bill Ireland said. “One thing that we also look at is our projected revenue for this fiscal year, right now is to be 2.8 million, and I believe, are going to be close to 6 million by the end of next month. So we’ve literally tripled, almost doubled at least, are what we have to take care of out in the field.”
One new position is for a blight inspector, given neighborhood cleanup efforts, and that should also increase revenue, Ireland said. So far this year his department has taken in, “I think $120,000.”
As for building inspectors, he “only” has two, Stamford has 10 and Greenwich has nine, he said. Big projects are coming along, including Norwalk High School, Norwalk Hospital and Pinnacle at Waypointe. “These projects reflect the big dollars, are three year inspection projects, and it’s not going to be done with the staff we have.”
Abrams got Ireland to agree not to hire one position right away so that it wouldn’t be in the budget. When he needs that person, it can come out of contingency.
Cuts lead to delayed CISO hiring
On Monday, Director of Management and Budgets Tom Ellis said the biggest reduction made in the budget had been $106,000 from Human Resources and Personnel, “mainly on technology initiative reductions.” The Department of Public Works had cut $80,000, most of that a $50,000 saving on salt due to the mild winter.
Daniels had cut $67,000 from “bits and pieces” and Economic and Community Development was down $66,000, Ellis said.
Frayer said he thought all the questions had added up to “a lot more” than the $393,000 in reductions Ellis reported.
Ellis said the Fire Department had cut $12,000, but “ironically, an increase of 11,900 for their gas and heating oil.” The Police Department had also scrubbed the budget but came in with a larger increase, from the expected 3.5% to 3.7%, because of gas and heating.
In August 2020, the Common Council authorized the hiring of Norwalk’s first Chief Information Security Officer (CISO).
“I don’t want to see us without a CISO. But the positions been open for two years, and you’re not going to fill it at” the proposed salary of $164,000, “so I would suggest we take that out,” Abrams said.
Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz had said he’d heard the City needed to offer closer to $300,000.
“Could we keep some money for us to be able to hire a consultant?” Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King asked. “I mean, we have not been able to hire for that position for two years. But we did have a pretty serious cybersecurity breach a couple of years ago, we’ve been trying to hire a full time CISO.
Abrams and Frayer agreed it could come from contingency.
Norwalk Public Schools wasn’t really flat funded in 2021-22, it got $30 million in federal COVID-19 money, Rilling said, also pointing out that NPS has acquired more employees. “That is what created the ‘cliff.’ It’s just that they should have, they could have shifted that money to offset operational costs in another area, and kept the same number of people … like the city did.”
NPS Chief Financial Officer Lunda Asmani addressed some of this March 15. While some say NPS is looking for the City to fund expenses that were paid by the federal relief funds, NPS isn’t looking for $48 million, he said. It asked for $12 million to cover contractual increases, increased Special Education costs and other unavoidable issues.
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella spoke of the Governor’s Executive Order mandating that staff be kept employed.
“I think there needs to be a recognition that part of the challenges that we are currently having has been in part as a result of that, as well as to compound the challenges that we’ve had with increased health care costs, as well as increased costs associated with services that is greater than what we have experienced in the past,” Estrella said.
Abrams said, “Education is critically important. It absolutely supports the future of the city, and brings in better individuals wanting to live here, I get that. But we have to balance that with the citizens who are here now and today.”
Rilling said Monday that the plan he’s working on will attempt to address the issues identified by “many of the people that spoke in favor of the Board of Education budget.”
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