NORWALK, Conn. — The new Norwalk High School project is a go and may even be built less expensively due to the COVID-19 crisis, Mayor Harry Rilling said Wednesday.
The Board of Estimate and Taxation went on to unanimously approve Rilling’s $153.83 million capital budget recommendation, which includes $50 million for Norwalk High, $3.5 million for a cafeteria at Naramake Elementary, $2.5 million for the Broad River Baseball Complex and $80,000 this year for design of the hoped-for Silvermine Elementary School driveway. There’s also $1 million for the Brien McMahon turf softball field, $170,000 for sidewalks in Rowayton and $4 million for watercourse maintenance.
The capital budget will now go to the Common Council for final approval, with a vote likely to take place May 12.
Rilling expressed confidence that Connecticut will go ahead with the promised 80 percent reimbursement for Norwalk High School construction costs.
“We feel this is a critical, critical need for the city of Norwalk,” Rilling said. “The old Norwalk High School is tired, and we’ve been investing money into the old Norwalk High School. We feel it’s not prudent to continue to invest money into a building that is very, very tired and will in the very near future need replacement anyway.”
Connecticut will see the project as economic stimulus, “getting people back to work as many other constructions projects will be,” Rilling said, calling this “good news, if you can find any good news in this coronavirus situation.”
“Moreover, we have been told that because of the situation, some projects are coming in quite a bit under the estimated amount at the beginning,” he said.
A school construction project in Enfield came in 20 percent under budget because people want to return to work and are being very competitive in the bidding process, according to Rilling.
Planning Commission’s recommendations reversed
The Planning Commission on Feb. 18, on a split vote, removed Norwalk High School from its recommended budget due to concerns over process, given that Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz had put the project into the budget instead of the Board of Education, according to the meeting minutes. The Dachowitz maneuver was thought to be against the City’s charter.
It’s common for the Planning Commission to remove items that have been recommended in the initial budget formulated by the Finance Director and the Mayor, only to have them be reinserted by the Mayor in the next step of the process.
The Planning Commission also slashed the recommended $13.5 million funding for a combined dispatch communications console nearly in half; Rilling reinstated it.
The Commission tried to direct funding to Norwalk Fire Department vehicle replacement and building construction and to a Police Department firing range, a $140,000 expense. The Commission recommended spending $837,000 on a stormwater management plan and doubled the recommended amount for a transportation management plan, from the $250,000 recommended by Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz to $500,000. It recommended spending $750,000 for furniture on the new Ponus Ridge school.
Rilling returned all those projects to the funding that had been recommended in the January budget, in many cases a “zero.” No funding is recommended for the new school furniture.
In two anomalies, Rilling kept the Planning Commission’s recommendations over those made by Dachowitz. He recommends $90,000 for the Health Department instead of the $60,000 that was in Dachowitz’ plan, and $134,000 for ADA access to Mill Hill, which previously had no funding recommended.
The Dachowitz/Rilling original budget version had no money for Board of Education cafeteria/kitchen renovations. The Planning Commission recommended $5 million and the BET approved Rilling’s recommended $3.5 million for the Naramake cafeteria, as mentioned above.
The watercourse maintenance funding of $4 million is twice what was originally recommended by Rilling/Dachowitz and by the Planning Commission.
“Last year, we conducted a detailed flood study and now have remediation recommendations. This request must be fully-funded to properly address resident concerns who have been plagued with flooding issues for a number of years,” Rilling said in his letter to the BET.
“I am recommending $170,000 for sidewalk projects on Rowayton Avenue, Hunt Street, Witch Lane, and George Avenue. Typically, the city repairs and/or installs sidewalks in conjunction with its paving program. However, I felt it important to address these areas sooner,” Rilling wrote.
The $80,000 this year for the Silvermine driveway is slated to be followed with $1 million next year for construction.
In December, Rilling predicted that a new Norwalk High School would cost the City $40 million. He later said $50 million.
The $50.28 million in the this capital budget iteration is based on “a detailed estimate provided by our consultants for 20% of the cost,” Rilling wrote in his letter to the BET. “The opportunity for a new high school for $50 million is something that our community simply cannot pass up.
The $153.83 million capital budget will be financed with $129 million in bonds to be repaid by Norwalk taxpayers and $24.83 million from grants and other non-general fund sources, Rilling’s letter states. “This total recommendation is $10 million greater than the Finance Department’s recommendation, and $54 million greater than the recommendation of the Planning Commission.”
“I feel very comfortable that this is a budget with which we can live,” Rilling said Wednesday. “And also, the things we put back in, we will be … authorizing certain expenditures but not necessarily funding them. So, this is something that we’re going to be looking at as this process goes forward and determining what things we can do and what things perhaps we can’t do.”
“As the mayor just alluded to, we have previous items that were authorized that have not yet been bonded,” Dachowitz said. “So, we have to watch carefully as we go forward, what we bond how we bond, looking at the costs of projects, maybe…now they can come in at a lower price. And we have to make the budgets stretch as best we can, prioritize.”
Dachowitz said he expects that when the markets normalize, Norwalk will be able to raise funds at a very favorable rate. “So that’s a positive for our timing,” and Norwalk has had the same financial advisor for 18 years, who is now affiliated with a national firm and “we’re going to get the best advice and the best structure and the best yield.”