NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Common Council members narrowly agreed on a budget cap Tuesday evening, after three failed votes.
Approved 8-6-1 was a $403,559,982 operating budget cap, $1 million more than recommended by Mayor Harry Rilling. This calculates an 4.6% budget increase for the Board of Education, though it’s up to the Board of Estimate and Taxation to set the budget.
Public comment: ‘babies in crisis’
The votes followed more than an hour of public comment that featured most parents advocating for a larger budget increase than discussed but also a few instead urging fiscal restraint, and four Board of Education members challenging their fellow Democrats.
“I really, really wish that I could say that I’m proud to be a Norwalker, but the truth is, especially since being elected to the Board of Education in 2021, I am not. Instead, I’m even more disappointed and disheartened by the actions and missteps taken by so very many who I thought were on the same team,” BoE member Kara Nelson Baekey said.
The “babies are in crisis,” BoE member Erica DePalma said, citing the psychological damage caused in December 2021 when the Norwalk Police SWAT team entered Norwalk High School with “guns raised.”
“What I heard from politicians at that time was that we were going to get behind the root causes of bullying and suicidal thoughts and anxiety and emotional stress that causes children to lash out in these ways,” DePalma said.
Robin Gredinger, an NPS social worker, said, “In the last two weeks, I have had eight students who are all general education students come to me, who are all self-harming. So I do just want you to know that this is real. This is post-COVID and this is what we are dealing with. None of these students are identified. None of these students have been, you know, spoken to about this before.”
An insufficient NPS budget increase would eliminate “some of the main people who are looking at chronic absenteeism, which is still a big problem in Norwalk, as we come back from COVID,” she said.
But Jalin Sead, father of two boys, said that while he feels his children deserve more funding he also knows lifelong friends who have left Norwalk.
“When they left, they didn’t have the choice to pick a town that had a great school system,” Sead said. “They were pushed to a city, who has struggling school systems, up the line in cities that I won’t mention… There are a lot of people who just can’t afford to pay more.”
Parent Patrick Connell warned, “I have two kids in the public school system here, it’s just not sustainable. You can’t have taxes rising faster than incomes.”
In moving toward a vote, Council President Greg Burnett (D-At Large) said, “It is extremely difficult to achieve a level of balance when we are faced with a budget request increase, in a single budget cycle, of $27 million from the Board of Education.”
The resultant budget cap provided a $10 million increase for the school district.
Of the many words that were spoken during the debate, none were uttered by newly appointed Council member Ed Camacho (D-At Large), former Board of Estimate and Taxation Chairman, or veteran Council member John Kydes (D-District C), attending remotely, other than their votes.
First came a move, led by District E Representatives Thomas Livingston and Lisa Shanahan, to set a budget cap $3 million lower than Rilling’s proposal. That failed 4-11-0, with Bryan Meek (R-District D) and Diana Révolus (D-District B) voting in favor.
Then came an attempt by Nicol Ayers (D-District A) to set a cap $3 million more than Rilling’s recommendation. That drew support from Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large), Barbara Smyth (D-At Large), Heidi Alterman (D-District D) and Jenn McMurrer (D-District C), resulting in a 5-10-0 vote.
The resolution to approve Rilling’s recommendation also failed, 7-8-0. The last vote was cast by Alterman, who was against the resolution.
“We do not have a resolution as of this moment,” Rilling said.
“Now what?” Meek asked.
“We stay here till we have one,” Smyth replied.
Alterman suggested reraising the amendment proposed by Ayers, prompting Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola to speak up, advising against that tactic. “I would not recommend rehearing the same motion,” he said.
After a brief recess, Council Majority Leader Darlene Young (D-District B) introduced the winning budget cap proposal.
Along the way to the decision, multiple Council members slammed NPS as not being transparent nor responsive to requests for information. One took direct aim at Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella.
“I am deeply alarmed that the Superintendent and her team did not engage in meaningful good faith negotiations with the City after requesting a $12.7 million, or 12.69% increase. Put simply, the city’s taxpayers cannot afford tax increases between 8.4 and 11.6%,” Council member Josh Goldstein (D-At Large) said. “The decision by the Superintendent not to come to the negotiating table, a change in behavior from prior budget cycles … (was) not only ineffective, but it’s also a disservice to the students and everyone involved in the process.”
“One of the biggest things that I’ve spoken about and that has shaken me during this process is we have asked questions publicly, via email and conversations. And yes, we do get replies to those emails, but they are not direct answers to our questions,” McMurrer said. “…We are tasked as a Council to make this monumental decision yet I feel when we ask questions, we are given more confusion than direct answers.”
“One of the things that has been hard for me during this entire budget cycle, as a parent, were the emails that I received from NPS on a regular basis, that, in my opinion, vilified our special needs kids,” David Heuvelman (D-District A) said. Citing “a certain disingenuousness that has gone on,” he added that he wasn’t sure he could support an increase “because of the rhetoric that has been spewed forth through this entire process for both sides.”
Meek said Rilling’s budget book is disingenuous in claiming a .75% on the City-side, as 11 City departments are getting more than 4%, five of them more than 10%.
While some parents felt the budget decision would be a foregone conclusion, Smyth said, “I have really been back and forth all day about this resolution.” A 2:17 p.m. email from Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz had given her data to chew on and she felt that citizens could afford a larger tax increase than the original recommended budget provided for.
Meek said he was voting against the budget.
“I reject this notion that our our children are worse off than kids in Turkey, Afghanistan and the Ukraine,” Meek said. “They’re very resilient, if we give them credit for it. If we treat them like victims, they will act like victims. And we need a paradigm mind shift in how we’re treating our children. They are going to survive. Will Norwalk survive with tax increases in perpetuity? I don’t know.”
Shanahan and Livingston cited the disproportionate increase their constituents in the Sixth Taxing District are looking at.
“We are pricing people of all backgrounds out of the city,” Livingston said, also warning that the budget is fueled by one-time revenue sources and that a property revaluation is underway. He predicted the BET could find the $3 million he was proposing to cut.
“Tax increases compound and this compounding effect on our district will result in our taxes increasing as much as between 12 and 15% over a three-year tax season,” Shanahan said. “This is just not sustainable…. Every year, we’re told that if we don’t fully fund the Board of Ed’s ask, the teachers will be laid off, our favorite arts and sports program will be canceled. Every year.”
Ayers said, “Even though I am not in support of the BoE’s request of the 12%, I know that the 4% just will not do.” A $3 million increase would “at least allow us to have a level footing and be prepared to deal with other budget concerns more creatively.”
Voting in favor of the $403,559,982 operating budget cap were Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large), Burnett, Camacho, Goldstein, Kydes, McMurrer, Smyth and Young. Voting no were Diana Révolus (D-District B), Alterman, Heuvelman, Livingston, Meek and Shanahan. Ayers abstained.