NORWALK, Conn. – The Common Council on Tuesday night shaved $500,000 off Finance Director Thomas Hamilton’s recommended 2014-2015 operating budget cap, while indicating sympathy for hard-hit taxpayers in the Sixth Taxing District.
The cap for total expenditures is $317,980,145. With an estimated $16,163,897 in intergovernmental grants, the total to be spent from Norwalk property tax dollars is $301,816,248. The council can revise this in April, but overriding this decision would require a 2/3 majority.
The increase from last year was painted in different ways, as Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) and Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E) reminded everyone that the revaluation means that people in the Fifth and Sixth Taxing Districts will be getting a double whammy.
“It’s always tough to craft an operating budget, but when we’re going it in a reval year it’s even harder because we’re not sure where the chips are going to fall when it comes to property taxes,” Kimmel said. “Sometimes some districts do OK, sometimes other districts do OK, or vice versa, so it’s very very difficult and almost impossible to make everyone happy during a reval year.”
Kimmel produced this list to show the impact of the revaluation:
• First Taxing District property owners will experience a minus 4 percent in their median tax bills
• Second Taxing District (South Norwalk) property owners will experience a minus 13.3 percent in their median tax bills
• Third Taxing District property owners will experience a minus 8.5 percent in their median tax bills
• Fourth Taxing District (the largest district, of homes that are sewered) will experience an increase of 1.2 percent in their median tax bills property
• Fifth Taxing District (non-sewered, primarily north of the Merritt) property owners will experience an increase of 6 percent in their median tax bills
• Sixth Taxing District (Rowayton) property owners will experience an increase of 8.2 percent in their median tax bills
He called Hamilton’s recommended budget a “Very solid document” which calls for a 2.9 spending increase, “the lowest in three years.”
While Kimmel said that this increase is the lowest in three years, McCarthy produced math that he said showed this increase to be much higher.
“In the Fifth and Sixth Taxing Districts we are looking at significant tax increases before the impact of the budget is even felt,” McCarthy said. “We’re talking about in the Fifth Taxing District, a 6 percent raise, and in the Sixth Taxing District, Rowayton, an 8.2 tax increase. I have seen properties that are increasing by as much as 25 percent on their tax bills before the new budget is factored in.”
McCarthy attempted to cast Kimmel’s claim of the lowest increase in three years as false.
“Last year … we had an emergency. We were dealing with the second part of the discovery of the insurance fiasco from the year before in the Board of Education’s budget,” McCarthy said.
The city gave the BOE $1.7 million more than it would have given to complete the process of filling that hole, he said.
According to news reports, the city took $1.2 million in excess insurance funds from the BOE to pay down that debt.
“That really means spending is up 3.5 percent,” he said. “Which leads to a tax increase, again, considering that additional distance, of about 4.1 percent or something that equates to about a 10 percent in the increase over last year even after using a million in fund balance. … Raising people’s taxes 4 percent, especially in districts where as I previously pointed out, before that impact is felt, there is a 6 or 8 percent increase that will be compounded to a potentially even more significant increase is just not sustainable in the long run.”
McCarthy initially proposed setting a cap that would be $1.5 million less than Hamilton’s recommendation. Only he and fellow Rowaytonite John Igneri (D-District E) voted for that. The vote for the lesser amount was unanimous. Every council member was present.
Council members promised that the BOE would be fully funded.
Majority Leader Jerry Petrini (R-District D) said new Superintendent Manny Rivera is “probably the best we could find,” who has requested “nothing frivolous.”
“I think the worst thing we could do at this point is to cut the legs out from under him,” he said. “… For if our schools are not up to par, they are not succeeding, I believe the detriment to the city is going to be far worse than higher taxes.”
It’s also important to deal with the city’s infrastructure, especially flooding issues, he said. There are contractual obligations, he said.
“I don’t think we should be opening up contracts that we agreed to,” he said. “But going forward I think the city really should take a hard look at what the private sector has been.”
Taxpayers are at the end of their limit, he said.
“If we can’t find a half a million dollars worth of excess in a $318 million budget – and I say this with a bitter pill because it is my district that is probably going to be raised up, I represent a lot of the Fourth and Fifth. But that being said, for the good of our city, for the good of our school systems, for the good of our property values, I will support this.”
Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said that with the work of new BOE staff, the BOE budget no longer has “hidden pockets.”
“I may have been with Dave in the old days but I think that right now anything more than (cutting $500,000) sends the wrong message to Dr. Rivera. … I think this is a well thought-out budget.”
Mayor Harry Rilling called the budget responsible.
“Nobody likes to raise taxes and it is really a horrible thing that anybody has to do,” he said. “But we do have to do the responsible thing. I just want to point out that every council person, city clerk and the mayor, we all live in town. We’re taxpayers. So it makes it difficult and we understand that we have to be responsible. We have to put together a responsible budget. I think that together we have done that.”