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Norwalk CFO blasted as Council Committee delays budget cap recommendation

Thursday’s Common Council Finance Committee meeting on Zoom.

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz defended his department Thursday after two Common Council members took aim at what they said was a pattern, an information gap that had prompted the Council Finance Committee to delay deliberations on the coming operating budget and its impact on Norwalk Public Schools.

With no Grand List to work from, the Committee tabled its budget cap recommendation to Tuesday, Feb. 28. Council member Nicol Ayers (D-District A) then said, “I’m extremely irritated that this is how we are doing business here in the City of Norwalk.” David Heuvelman (D-District A) said he agreed.

Dachowitz called her comments an “unfair potshot.”

 

Speakers support NPS during public hearing

More than 30 people spoke to the Committee during the preceding public hearing, almost all urging a cap that would provide a larger increase in the school district’s budget than has been recommended by Mayor Harry Rilling.

Rilling’s budget calls for a 4% increase to the school district. Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella’s budget ask, approved by the Board of Education, was for a 12% increase. This was pared down from the original 18% calculation.

In 2020-21, the Board of Estimate and Taxation provided no increase to Norwalk Public Schools in light of huge amounts of federal aid due to the pandemic. Multiple speakers noted that during the public hearing.

“If you gave a 0% increase a year or two ago, and then you told the BoE to use the COVID relief funds for these interventionist mental health coaches, teacher obligations, contractual obligations, did you not expect them to ask for a big percentage of a budget increase?” Amanda Trimboli asked.

Assertions that the 4% increase wouldn’t even cover contractual obligations was also a common theme.

“This Council’s flat funding a year ago caused this issue,” Gloria Neiderer said.

“A 5% increase in funding is necessary just to meet the salary and benefit requirements of our current staff,” Jennifer Jeffries said.

Kendall Elementary School Principal Zakiyyah Baker and a third grade student make their way to the lectern, Thursday in City Hall’s Council Chambers. While Kendall was recognized for excellence pre-pandemic, now the question is “how do we come out of the trauma that we experienced,” she said.
The child expressed gratitude for the school and said, “I want to continue to shine bright.”
(John Levin)

The Coalition of Educational Unions also urged more funding.

“We have been working in an all hands on deck mentality for years now in the school buildings,” Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon said. “The 4% cap does not provide the means to support a proper educational experience for the students of Norwalk….(It) will endanger the gains that our students have made coming out of the pandemic.”

“Connecticut, just like the rest of the country, is experiencing a children’s mental health crisis that in large part was triggered by the social distancing and isolation requirements of the pandemic,” said Marissa Mangone, a senior officer for MFCC, formerly mid-Fairfield Child Guidance Center.

While the recent youth survey showed some middle and high school students are struggling, “we are also seeing Norwalk children as young as seven and eight years old, self-harming,” she said. “Some have even attempted suicide.”

One speaker raised his voice.

“Kids are in crisis these days,” Doug Peeples said. “… What is the matter with you guys? How are you justifying this?”

Jennifer Jeffries said she’s always heard that the City’s “Rainy Day Fund,” or unassigned general fund balance, should only be used for emergencies.

“I’m asking you to think about the data that I shared about our student population. Couldn’t the academic losses spurred by the pandemic and the high percentages of children experiencing mental health issues be constituted as a crisis for our city?” she said. “If we properly fund our schools and help our children, we will in turn, lift up our whole community.”

Rilling’s recommended budget calls for a $6 million draw down from the Rainy Day Fund.

Others spoke of families leaving Norwalk due to the school system, or shying away from coming here because of budget shortages. Several children addressed the Committee; one Norwalk High School sophomore said she’s one of the students struggling with depression and anxiety.

“I’ve struggled with self-harm and attempted suicide multiple times,” she said. “… I genuinely don’t know how I could continue to be a student without that support system.”

 

Dachowitz slammed

After two hours of testimony, the Committee moved on to the budget cap discussion in what is technically a separate meeting.

Parents watching remotely couldn’t see the hybrid meeting on Zoom. City E-Government Coordinator Larry Manzi explained this was a technical glitch caused by the first meeting going longer than expected and urged them to watch the discussion on YouTube.

Dachowitz explained that the Grand List, a compilation of assessed property values, is normally due Jan. 31 but Tax Assessor William Ford has gotten an extension to Feb. 28.

Dachowitz is Ford’s supervisor.

It’s the fourth year in a row that the City has gotten an extra month from the State to file its updated Grand List.

The Grand list is essential for determining the mill rate and the corresponding average tax bills, as the Finance Department divides the assessed values by the revenue the City needs to fund its budget, Dachowitz explained.

He was expecting to deliver the Council Committee numbers for its budget cap setting-meeting but Tax Assessor William Ford wasn’t comfortable with the numbers, he said, explaining that the Tax Assessor’s Office is struggling with a software transition.

Both the Tax Assessor and Tax Collector offices are switching to Quality Data Systems (QDS) for their software needs, a decision approved by the Council in July. The shift to QDS was expected by September but there were “delays, none of which were our fault,” Dachowitz said in December.

Therefore, an upgraded version of old software is being used.

“You have preliminary numbers, and they will change but we’re just not sure where they’re going to end up,” Dachowitz said.

A decision as important as this shouldn’t be made without the information, Council member Jenn McMurrer (D-District C) said.

Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) moved to table the budget cap to Tuesday, Feb. 28, although the operating budget calendar posted by the Finance Department states that the budget cap deadline is March 7.

The motion passed unanimously. Lone Council Republican Bryan Meek (District D) was not present.

Ayers let her displeasure fly.

“Yet again, we are not getting things in a timely manner from the Finance Department,” she said. “I can appreciate a computer glitch, I could appreciate being cautious. But at this point, we are setting a pattern… This happened last year.”

She added, “I know my colleagues are probably gonna get me in the parking lot. But that’s OK. This has to stop. We cannot continue to do business like this.”

“What happens if we don’t have these numbers on Monday?” Heuvelman asked.

The charter gives the Council until March 7 to set the cap, Burnett replied.

“I think the problem here was the ambitious calendar,” Dachowitz said, calling it “unfair” to give Ford a Feb. 23 deadline for the Grand List when the State granted a legal extension.

“I think Mr. Ford is doing yeoman’s work with a very tough situation. I don’t want to go into the details about where he is. But the vast majority of the values have already been established,” Dachowitz said. “…I was the one who made the decision to not give you numbers tonight. He has a deadline of February 28.”

Updated, 12:37 p.m.: Information added. Correction, March 2: BET provided no increase to NPS.

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Comments

8 responses to “Norwalk CFO blasted as Council Committee delays budget cap recommendation”

  1. Larry Losio

    Unfortunately, this article leaves me more perplexed than elucidated.

    Do the Tax Assessor’s office and William Ford report to the Department of Finance and it’s Director Henry Dachowitz? If not, on what basis is Council member Ayers “slamming” – or even criticizing – Mr. Dachowitz?

    If this is the second year in a row that there has been a delay in finalizing the Grand List, resulting in a delay in getting needed numbers to the Council’s Finance Committee, then the frustration felt by the two referenced Council members is certainly understandable. However, shouldn’t that frustration be directed at the individual or individuals responsible for the delay in the Grand List numbers? Or better yet, if there is an underlying flaw in the Budget Calendar or the processes that comprise and support it, shouldn’t the individuals or groups responsible for the Calendar and supporting processes really be the target of that frustration?

    1. William Ford is a direct report to Henry Dachowitz.

  2. John O’Neill

    I’d like to know how many of the people who spoke up in favor of the school hikes voted for the same state legislators last election cycle. You know, those state legislators who haven’t changed the ECS formula in any meaningful way. It makes me laugh. The same political party has controlled Hartford for 50 years. Most of the voices last night have voted for legislators from that party for as long as they’ve been allowed to vote. Yet, here we are. AND they’ll still vote that same line! They keep going into hysterics on local politicians while seemingly not paying attention to where the real money is.(Hartford for those not paying attention) Kids are in a crisis? Hey, you’re a little late with that comment. If you look at the prior test scores, kids have been in a crisis for 10 years or more. Has anyone who spoke mentioned Jim Hims dropping the ball on additional funding from DC — You know the “fun” money that’s helped create sidewalks on every street in Norwalk and a couple of murals as well. Here’s a question: Should we redirect money to be spent on murals towards the schools? Or is that considered off the wall thinking on my part?
    Glad Union President Mary has joined the chorus. It seems to me she would better serve her union by showing a little outrage over the working conditions her peeps are “enjoying” under Estrella & Co. Teacher burnout is directly related to lack of civility allowed in our classrooms and hallways.
    Nicol Ayers — I like her chutzpah. You have a good point. My question is why the Common Council wasn’t aware of software issues 9 months ago before this current problem was born. Or were they?
    Henry Dachowitz — Henry will continue to be the hero of anyone who pays a dime in taxes in this town. Is he perfect? Certainly not. But he’s a helluva lot better than the alternative.

  3. Drew Todd

    What I still find amazingly entertaining is not one of the 30 speakers took Estrella to task for the squandering of money and the lack of her horrible leadership and destruction of our schools and morale at a all time low. Sure, let’s just keep throwing money at the problems in our schools mostly created by her. The teachers are basically powerless to teach. One example is Block Scheduling. A teacher told me that if they are being “evaluated” and go over the allotted Block Time they get written up..So if its 10:50 and the teacher is trying to finish a math lesson and needs to start Social Studies at 11:00 they better do so weather or not the class understands the last math lesson. And add on her Socialist and Woke BS agenda spending millions on you now have the perfect storm. I’m sorry but for years and years of begging for funds and the schools receiving them plus COVID funds how can she not make an ADDITIONAL $9 Million not work!?!?

  4. Patrick Cooper

    Out of crisis comes hope. The English theologian Thomas Fuller – in 1650 – gave us the proverb “it’s always darkest before the dawn” – meaning, things often seem the worst just before they get better. We’ll see.

    I attended the meeting in the council chambers last night – and was happy to see 5 council persons attending, with Bryan Meek (the 6th) arriving about 20% into the public comment section. I was particularly impressed with Jenn McMurrer and Nicol Ayres, as I watched their visceral reactions to emotional testimony from the parent stakeholders. They seemed to fully grasp how this broken process has real consequences on their constituents, including the children. Meanwhile – Harry hid in his zoom room, and he too got blasted by parents for his MIA performance.

    When I saw the disappointment and anger flowing from Jenn & Nicol on the U-Tube coverage of the Council Finance Committee – I understood where that was coming from.

    Henry took pains to make sure everyone understood – as he referenced in comments repeatedly – “This is the Mayors Budget”. A veteran observer of this annual circus under Harry, I get that this is the language that flows from folks who get – someone is going to get the blame. BUT – it won’t be Harry.

    Naturally, for me – the highlight speaker of the evening was Lisa Brinton. To paraphrase – she challenged the council to stop being afraid of the mayor. Her comment should be published in full for all to read and comprehend. Only Lisa spoke about how – for the full duration of Harry’s tenure as mayor, and even before that – “None of you will speak to the direct correlation between housing and education”. She encouraged an “honest and courageous” dialogue.

    Perhaps I was the only one in the room – and thank you John Levin for your contributed photo – but the irony was thick when – standing a few feet from Lynne Moore – Lisa noted among the mismanagement that bleeds revenue from the city – are the “millions lost in lawsuits”. So, while the remarkable young girl who spoke about a razor thin difference in her daily mental health challenges was a guidance counselor who might be lost due to the cuts – but I wonder if everyone put 2 + 2 together, and realized – those funds went to Lynne Moore and her lawyers? No – not happening in Norwalk, where Ms. Moore heads the Harry DTC in Dis-D (my district).

    I understand Lynne was just doing what she felt would prevent future lawsuits. But then again, NoN just announced on Fat Tuesday (2/21) that a “Terminated IT worker sues NPS” – so we can see – nothing has changed.

    No – I understand parents are rightly furious over the budget cuts that they have been told will affect their children’s education. Lisa Brinton challenged the council to cowboy up – and challenge the annual status quo budget games played by the mayor. Yes, we are in the darkest of hours in Norwalk. BUT…….if Jenn, Nicol, Nora, Diana, and maybe John Kydes all joined with Bryan Meek to expose the sausage making – shine a light on the real issues – Norwalk may very well be on the way to addressing the core issues that create this Ground Hog day budget process in Norwalk. All eyes should be on Harry.

  5. Joe Tamburri

    WOW, what a state of affairs has Norwalk fallen into.
    Again, absolutely no accountability anywhere.
    Bad decisions by leadership but again is anyone surprised??

  6. Larry Losio

    Thanks, Nancy, for that clarification. Apologies if I missed that in my first reading.

    1. Larry, I added that information just before 1 p.m.

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