Update, 3 p.m. Feb 6: Capital budget info is on city website. Correction, 3:46 p.m.: Silvermine driveway is slated for 2021-22 funding. Clarification added regarding Cranbury Elementary funding. 3:57 p.m.: Correction on Jessica Casey explanation.
NORWALK, Conn. – You are invited to go to City Hall tonight and opine on the capital budget. It’s suggested that you go to City Hall and wade through paperwork if you want to know what to opine on.
Contrary to previous practice, detailed information is not available on the City’s website but you could email and ask for information on specific projects, if you can divine what they are from the skimpy information available online.
NancyOnNorwalk obtained recordings of the Planning Commission’s line-by-line inspection of the budget requests and, pairing it with Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz’s budget recommendation, can present you with these highlights:
Dachowitz has recommended approving $30.6 million for a new Cranbury Elementary School. This would not be funded in 2020-21, however, keeping Dachowitz’s plan to keep the 2020-21 capital budget at $32 million.
The information is conflicting, however. Dachowitz has funding Cranbury in his spreadsheet as a 2020-21 expense. His narrative states that the school does “not require” funded in 2020-21.
The Cranbury gross cost is estimated at $45 million, with $14.4 million expected from the state. It’s necessary for a City to approve funding for a new school before getting approval from the state. Dachowitz explains this in his letter, writing, “Therefore the City does not borrow or bond debt in the amount of the TOTAL authorized Capital Projects in a budget. First we deduct the amount of expected reimbursement and then plan to borrow the NET amount of the project cost for which we are responsible.”
Cranbury is the largest request from the Board of Education, Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said. NPS had planned to replace windows and build a separate cafeteria at a cost of $9 million but the bids came back at $17 million.
“Obviously, it’s a lot more expensive, but … I think is the direction ultimately we need to start going as a city, which is we’ve got to really reconstruct these buildings that are, you know, 50-plus, 60 years old,” Hamilton said.
“This basically completely constructs a new two story, academic wing,” he said. “The existing academic wing is demolished. The gymnasium would be refurbished and reused. There would be a new library media center, there would be a new cafeteria on the existing site.”
The $45 million estimate may be high, he said.
Norwalk High School
Also in Dachowitz’s recommendation is a $50 million net expense to build a new Norwalk High School. Total cost is thought to be $225 million with an expected $175 million reimbursement.
As has been widely publicized, Norwalk expects 80 percent reimbursement because State Sen. Bob Duff (D-25) is confident he can get legislation passed to make this school a pilot school. It would admit 100 students from Stamford and/or Bridgeport to the P-Tech Academy and 100 students from Norwalk’s wealthy neighboring communities to an arts academy, via a tuition swap.
Dachowitz is recommending keeping the yearly capital budget expenditures to just over $40 million through 2025.
The Planning Commission was not asked to approve the new high school. Mayor Harry Rilling can, by City Code, add a new project to the capital budget at the end of the process, Hamilton said.
Dachowitz recommends bonding $1.5 million in 2021-22 to create a new driveway at Silvermine Elementary School.
Planning Commissioner Nora King, a Rowayton resident, pushed back on that one. All of the schools have horrible congestion problems and $1.5 million seems like a lot for 20 feet, she said. Plus, “the car is going to go slipping down in the winter and, like, end up in this Silvermine River.”
NPS Director of Facilities Bill Hodel guaranteed that a car would not wind up in the river.
Say what you want, the backup at Silvermine is the worst, with cars reaching all the way to Perry Avenue, Hodel said.
“We want to cut a separate entrance down a big hill into the parking lot, so the parents can park there while the buses can go on the main loop,” Hodel said. “That’s an elevation of about 20 feet, so it’s a sizable project. And this will certainly reduce the impact on Perry Avenue for arrivals and dismissals. It’s probably something that Silvermine needed for many, many years.”
The Silvermine School Governance Council met with Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski and pressed for a change, complaining that parents routinely wait for 45 minutes to an hour to pick up their children, Hamilton explained.
Dachowitz’ letter also recommends $3.3 million for “other miscellaneous” school projects. There’s no explanation as to what that might be.
Planning Commissioners spent a fair amount of time discussing air conditioning at the schools.
PC Chairwoman Fran DiMeglio spoke of $850,000 for three schools, with $500,000 for one school.
NPS has a program to install air conditioning at all the schools that don’t have major construction going on, by doing as much as possible under the budget constraints yearly, Hamilton said. Roton Middle School needs to have its interior classrooms retrofitted with AC, the second installment of a project that began with exterior classrooms.
DiMeglio said she’s been advocating for air conditioning for 10 years so it’s good to see it being done.
Air quality was also a topic.
Hodel thanked the Commission for approving $150,000 for air quality measures, although the capital budget is approved by the Common Council.
People have complained for years about air quality and then Silvermine parents complain about a driveway once and get it funded that year, and, “It boggles the mind sometimes, right?” she said.
Transportation, Mobility & Parking
Dachowitz recommends $1.4 million be spent through the new Transportation, Mobility & Parking Department (TMP), $550,000 for traffic signals and $500,000 for a transportation master plan.
King pushed back on the transportation master plan, also. There was a study done in 2012 and, “I bet you if we went through that and actually checked how much we did, it was probably not a lot,” she said.
“I’m all for these plans,” Planning Commissioner Mike Mushak countered. “A lot has changed in the years since 2012, because effectively the study was 2010. … There’s a lot of growth in place. And there’s a lot of technology changes, and there’s a lot of huge changes in transportation. The biggest thing that affects every one of us in the city, and the biggest complaint that they get City Hall is traffic, traffic, traffic.”
The plan had many good things in it but much of it was a wish list, he said. On the other hand, it was also a catalyst for many grants that came Norwalk’s way.
The 2012 plan updated all the engineering design standards, TMP Director Kathryn Hebert said.
“This is going to take an integrated approach to all of the mobility modes that we’re talking about and the safety standards that we need to comply with, looking at how everybody equitably lives in in the area, how we travel,” Hebert continued.
Cars, bikes, pedestrians, and which streets should be prioritized, will all be part of the plan, she said.
It’s possible that an autonomous shuttle will go up West Avenue, a Department of Public Works employee said. “But you kind of need some seed money to, to put together plans to go now apply for federal grants.”
Dachowitz recommends spending $50,000 on an autonomous shuttle.
The transportation master plan at $500,000 costs more than the $200,000 Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) because it also includes engineering services, Norwalk Chief of Economic and Community Development Jessica Casey explained. If the engineering services were not included, the City would have to depend on in-house staff or hire a consultant.
Residential parking permits?
There’s also a request for $150,000 to fund a study on residential parking permits. Dachowitz recommends approving the request.
“Typically, residential parking permit programs are very labor intensive, and they need to have very strict criteria that are associated with them and they need to be strategically located,” Hebert said. “I don’t know the answer to that. So the Parking Authority is requesting $150,000 to study that and come up with a plan.”
Norwalk is growing and people who live near train stations, who don’t have garages or driveways, are seeing all the street parking spaces be taken up by commuters looking to avoid the expense of garages, Hebert said. Residents would get stickers entitling them to the street spaces.
A consultant would study how other cities are implementing residential parking and make recommendations for Norwalk, Casey explained.
You might find it ‘cumbersome’
Going back to at least 2014, capital budget documents have included request forms from all the departments. This year’s doesn’t.
The January 2014 document from then-Finance Director Tom Hamilton is 259 pages long. The 2017-18 document from then-Finance Director Bob Barron is 388 pages. The January 2020 document from Dachowitz is 17 pages.
NancyOnNorwalk sent an email to Dachowitz, Rilling and Norwalk Communications Manager Josh Morgan asking for an explanation and referring to “transparency.”
“There’s a fine line of being transparent and providing so much information that it becomes overwhelming,” Morgan replied. “The everyday resident might find it cumbersome to sift through a 300 page document. Providing topline dollars and cents on the department requests is easier to digest. The recommended Capital Budget is available to the public and can be viewed at City Hall. We can also email information on projects as-requested.”
“On January 28 and 29, the Planning Commission conducted departmental reviews of Capital Budget requests, line by line,” DiMeglio wrote Tuesday. “The budget requests and the Finance Director recommended capital budget was posted on line on 1/31. As in previous years, tomorrow night at the public hearing all department heads will be there. The public can comment and ask questions regarding departmental requests. Department Heads will not be making presentations.”