NORWALK, Conn. — Two spending decisions are on the agenda when the Board of Estimate and Taxation meets Tuesday evening.
One is the operating budget, which the Board voted to postpone after last week’s lackluster public hearing, in hopes that Mayor Harry Rilling would meet success when he met with Norwalk Public Schools administration to discuss an alternative idea.
The other is the capital budget cap. Rilling has recommended $6.4 million more in capital spending than the Finance Department did in January.
Rilling’s version “reflects my continued commitment to increasing walkability by building upon our transportation infrastructure through funding to install more sidewalks and crossroads,” he wrote.
Last week’s hybrid public hearing on the BET’s operating budget drew three speakers, despite the controversial nature of the 4% increase planned for Norwalk Public Schools, in light of the Board of Education’s request for a 12.7% increase.
“I know we had a lot of people wanting to fully fund the Board of Education budget, we also had people who said, ‘I can’t afford a large tax increase because of inflation being at eight and a half percent,” Rilling said, to begin the hearing. “… it’s a difficult challenge for us.”
Rilling and BET Chairman Ed Abrams said all email commentary had been read and would be part of the public record.
Diane Lauricella, an activist who has regularly spoken at budget public hearings for at least 20 years, was first to offer thoughts.
“The City does not appear to be willing to go big to address the policy and practices that would make ideas about utility savings, electricity, creating our own electricity, heating, increasing our grant outcomes a reality,” she said, advocating for the changes she has urged in nearly every budget cycle. “I’m not saying that the city is making little progress. They do make some progress, but I’m stating that they are not optimizing the opportunities quickly enough so that we’re losing grant funding to more proactive towns… you will be told otherwise by certain staff and officials. But please just look at the actual numbers.”
Common Council member Bryan Meek (R-District D) mentioned school staffing.
“Looking at the annual report from in the 2000s we had, we had about 11,000 school children like we do today. But back then we only had 1,300 employees in the school system. And that that was before we outsourced janitors lunch ladies and bus drivers. We have almost 2,000 people there for the same number of kids, there’s an additional seven or 800 people on the payroll,” said Meek, a former BoE member. “…We can’t be here 20 years from now with 3,000 people working in the school system for the same population.”
Adriana Romero, a parent, spoke in response to Meek.
“The reason for that is with all the counselors and extra counselors and para professionals and just the extra support that we are offering the children emotionally, mentally and any other way that can be, I guess, offered,” she said.
She described the BET as a “huge surge protector,” with many departments plugged in and BET members “tasked with the decision of who are you going to plug out and who are you going to allow to continue to have electricity within you,” and added, “I ask that you please take into consideration that every number that you are trying to lower down or percentage that you are trying to lower down, that is one of our children.”
The next item on the agenda was a vote on the operating budget developed by the BET, allocating a 4% increase to the schools though the Common Council increased its cap to allow an extra $1 million, on its fourth vote.
Rilling said he’d be meeting with Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella to discuss the “other possibilities” he had mentioned, alternative ideas that would address requests made by parents without obligating the City to continue funding NPS with the higher budget level that would be set if a higher increase was granted.
“We’re going to give it our give it our best shot,” he said.
With that in mind, Abrams led the BET to table its decision for a few days.
Meek, during the BET public hearing, also touched on the capital budget.
“A big component of that operating expenses here is debt service. And, you know, we had the luxury of the last two decades in not having to talk about that with one or 2% interest rates. But we’re up to 5% today. There’s no end in sight and building the school buildings, incurring the debt, even if it looks like it’s a free building from the state, is going to cannibalize and other projects that the City needs doing. We really need to evaluate what we’re going to spend our capital on. The Finance Director’s introduction to the capital budget was very sobering.”
Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz, in the Jan. 31 budget recommendation, said, “Norwalk has a large amount of Previously Authorized But-Not-Yet-Bonded Capital Projects, which had been accelerating in prior years, but decreased last year.”
It had been $220 million in authorized but not funded projects on Sept. 30, 2021, but had decreased to $184.4 million on Dec. 31, which was still more than the figure two years earlier, which was $180 million.
The August 2020 interest rate on 30-year AAA tax-exempt bonds was 1.67% but last August it was 3.59%, he said.
“With inflation not yet fully combated and the Federal Reserve Bank signaling further interest rate hikes in the coming year, I expect our borrowing costs for the coming two years ranging between 3.5% and 5.0% per annum,” Dachowitz wrote.
Rilling’s recommended budget calls for a $3 million investment in Norwalk’s sidewalks, curbs and crosswalks. “This includes $350,000 towards sidewalks at Hunt Street and Witch Lane, $30,000 towards protected crosswalks and $250,000 towards our Safe Routes to School projects,” Rilling wrote.
Dachowitz didn’t recommend funding the Hunt Street/Witch Lane project and only recommended $75,000 for Safe Routes to Schools.
Rilling recommended $7 million for the pavement management program, while Dachowitz had penciled in $6 million. The Mayor recommends $500,000 towards improving traffic circulation at Tracy Magnet School, while Dachowitz had recommended not funding the project.
Rilling recommends $1.3 million for East Avenue Corridor improvements; the Jan. 31 document says TMP had requested $750,000 and Dachowitz penciled in a zero.
TMP’s request included an additional $750,000 in the next budget cycle.
Rilling recommends $1 million on school security, meeting NPS’ full request, while Dachowitz had suggested a $600,000 expenditure. Rilling’s total $4 million for the schools includes “$650,000 for brand-new air conditioning systems, $850,000 for instructional technology to ensure all students have access to a world-class digital education and $300,000 for new band instruments within the school’s musical programs.”
Updated, 9:05 p.m.: Copy edit.
NancyOnNorwalk requires full names from commenters.
For more information, go here.