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Norwalk BET looks to set operating budget, capital budget caps

Mayor Harry Rilling listens to a speaker at last week’s Board of Estimate and Taxation public hearing on the operating budget.

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.

Operating budget

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.

Capital budget

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.”

FY2024 Capital Budget CFO Transmittal (Final) (1)

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.”

Mayor Rilling — FY 23-FY24 Capital Budget Transmittal Letter

Updated, 9:05 p.m.: Copy edit.

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6 responses to “Norwalk BET looks to set operating budget, capital budget caps”

  1. Johnny cardamone

    800 more staff members in the public schools and kids seem worse off than ever!?
    And we’re still waiting for a sidewalk from Heather Lane to George Avenue so the kids don’t have to walk in the gutter plus a three way stop sign at Tierney and George so kids can cross the street without getting run over on that blind corner!

  2. Drew Todd

    Since the BET is meeting tonight night let’s remember a few things….
    Question asked this morning (Saturday) at the Legislative Forum this morning regarding the Dissolving of the Norwalk Transit District. And note the property alone is worth estimated at $13 Million Dollars!
    What does the City Of Norwalk Tax Payer gain from the dissolving of the NTD? What is the financial reward?!
    Answer from ONLY Rep Marra was ZERO It is just being handed over to the State!
    Answers from the rest of the “Democratic Delegation let by Bob Duff……CRICKETS!!! NOT A WORD!! Now that’s standing up right?!
    A $32,500 RAISE for Estrella–I know certain BOE members justify this becuase the Superintendent in Stamford’s total compensation is over $400K so it must be fine for Norwalk.
    A $200K DEI Position that the City and Schools have–They could share this useless position–And our DEI Guy has a BRAND NEW Leather couch in his office, compliments of the tax payers
    No Cuts from Estrella Pet Projects and over paid mini Superintendents.
    $2 Million for a PARKING LOT that will have more Apartments and an Office Building because everyone is just running and going back to the office 5 days a week. See Merit 7 which remains basically empty.
    An all of a sudden a more used Family Center which we DO NOT need! Sorry we have space in City Hall.
    A new Bob Duff High which is already behind schedule, many questions still unanswered and already most probably over budget.
    We know over 25 teachers are leaving next year, some left like at BMHS in the middle of the year because of Estrella and we still have 80 open well soon 105 vacancies.
    And some how she can’t make $9 Million work!?!??! Really!??!?
    But finally as some would have us think that Bob is just amazing because he was instrumental in fixing and still broken ECS formula that by the time the 10th year rolls around we will get pennies on the dollar. Actually, I think we will owe money to the State.

    All reactions:3Ursula Cocchia Leo and 2 others

  3. jacqueline gillett

    Parents of school children need to understand that it is not all about how much money is in the schools’ budget, but how much learning is actually taking place in the classrooms.

  4. Michael McGuire

    Assuming Bryan Meek is correct on the staffing of NPS at ~ 1,300 in the year 2000, and ~2,000 staff today for approximately the same number of students, then why don’t we do a deep dive into what has changed? What required this growth in staffing? And most importantly are we, as a city, supportive of the reasons for the growth?

    After all, a reduction of 700 staff at NPS would be a much welcome relief to the taxpayer.

    FYI I’m not buying Mrs. Romero’s reason. Clearly the coddling of our youth over the past decade or so has, and is, having some truly unexpected and unwanted consequences.

    The very fact that NPS, the BOE and/or the City’s finance department have not explored this is remarkable and telling. Perhaps it’s NPS’s hard left agenda, or Norwalk’s sanctuary city status they don’t want to spotlight as the logical culprit(s) in our ever-expanding school staffing (and affordable housing issue) ‘needs’.

    I hope that Bryan Meek and the other newly elected “Common Sense” Democratic CC members take up the challenge on behalf of the beleaguered taxpayers and the underserved youth of Norwalk. Is there a more noble cause than this?

    Clearly, common sense and open, respectful debate are needed.

  5. Barbara Meyer-Mitchell

    The CFO has been clear that our bonding capacity is limited. The School Facility studies and the efficiency study showed Norwalk has $429-495 million in repair/building needs across the NPS district. We should do what Stamford is doing and create a fund for the City dedicated for
    School Facility Construction and Repair and dedicate a certain mill rate increase to go directly to the fund for the next 25 years while we are receiving the 60% reimbursement rate for school repairs.

    If we take the low end of the needs in the buildings, $429 million, then Norwalk’s 40% funding need would be $171,600,000 over 25 years.
    That is $6,864,000 annually for 25 years.

    6864000/14940000000 = 6864/14940000 = 0.0004594377…. = 0.45 mills, Just under 1/2 of 1 mill. Mill = 1/1000 = 0.001

    We could start a fund for school construction similar to Stamford’s. We would only need to increase the mill rate .5 to be able to set aside the necessary $6,864,000 for Norwalk’s portion of the 40% of costs.

    This would eliminate paying interest on bonds, as well as lowering the debt service line in the Operating budget going forward as old bonds are paid off. That leaves further bonding available to us to focus on flood mitigation and paving and parks. This would also protect our AAA bond rating and show the rating agencies that we have a professionally guided plan to invest proactively in our schools without increasing indebtedness.

    We need a true plan to execute these repairs during the 25 year 60% reimbursement rate, and the time to do that is now.

    Here are the articles that this thinking is based upon:

    https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/norwalkstamford-to-get-60-state-reimbursement-on-school-construction-projects/

    https://www.thehour.com/news/article/Study-Norwalk-schools-need-at-least-429M-worth-16124089.php

    https://www.ctinsider.com/news/thehour/article/Norwalk-finance-chief-warns-city-could-lose-AAA-16829650.php?t=09ad223352

    https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/norwalk-efficiency-study-released-a-book-hopefully-not-a-door-stop/

    https://ctexaminer.com/2022/11/06/1-5-billion-school-construction-plan-has-board-of-finance-board-of-ed-at-odds-in-stamford/

  6. Terrence McNicholas

    Same amount of kids 15-20 years later…with 75% more staff on the payroll. If anyone doesn’t think that is the problem, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

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