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Norwalk Planning Commissioners to Rilling: Fund the driveway, fix bathrooms

Planning Commission Chairwoman Frances DiMeglio concludes the Commission’s recent capital budget decision-making session.

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Planning Commissioners have pressured Mayor Harry Rilling to spend more capital budget dollars on Norwalk Public Schools than his Chief Financial Officer thinks wise.

The Planning Commission’s recommended capital budget is nearly $3 million higher than the austere recommendation from CFO Henry Dachowitz, a 10% increase would allow Rilling to fund the Silvermine Elementary School driveway and school bathroom renovations in the coming year. It would also give the Norwalk Public Library $38,000 of the $75,000 it requested, when Dachowitz had snubbed the library’s request entirely. And work on the Norwalk River Valley Trail could continue. More importantly, there would be funding for stormwater management in the coming budget.

Over the last four years, the Planning Commission’s record in reversing the direction recommended by the Finance Department is spotty. Rilling has usually gone in another direction and the Common Council has almost always approved Rilling’s recommendation.

Rilling’s recommendation to the Board of Estimate and Taxation is due in five days. Dachowitz has warned that Norwalk’s triple A bond rating would be jeopardized by too much borrowing; the Planning Commission’s recommendation for $31,441,822  in 2021-22 capital spending falls well short of the $120 million threshold mentioned by Dachowitz. The Council votes on the budget in mid-April.

The Commission is a step in the process: its eight members spend many hours going over capital budget requests, then hold a public hearing. Then they make a recommendation for the Mayor, simultaneously taking their responsibility very seriously yet having the light-hearted freedom in knowing that theirs isn’t the final say.

Most notably in its recent maneuvers, last year the Commission cut the Finance recommendation for $273 million in school construction to $55.3 million. Rilling brought it back up to $102.7 million. This concerned the surprise addition of a new Norwalk High school to the mix.

In 2018 the Commission voted to slash the recommendation for school construction, from $59.4 million to $15.6 million. Rilling reinstated the Finance recommendation and the Council approved $59.4 million.

This year’s Planning Commission recommendation, submitted by Chairwoman Frances DiMeglio to the Mayor on Monday, recommends spending $1 million on school bathrooms. Dachowitz had a “0” in that column and the Board of Education had asked for $1.5 million.

“No excuses can be made as to the lack of attention in this area. This funding is recommended to upgrade the bathrooms in the two schools that need it the most within this fiscal year 2021-2022,” the Commission wrote to Rilling. “Many parents spoke at the public hearing regarding the deplorable conditions that these bathrooms are in. Parents voiced many health concerns that need immediate attention. These below standards, non- hygienic conditions, especially in a pandemic year, are appalling.”

The Board of Education had originally withdrawn its expectation for $1.5 million in this year’s capital budget for the Silvermine driveway, divulging that the driveway’s design hadn’t been done due to the pandemic. The Board reversed that and formally made a request.

Dachowitz recommended no funding. The Planning Commission thinks the BoE should get the full $1.5 million.

“Even though the Study piece is behind schedule, after hearing the many safety concerns expressed by parents at the public hearing, it was felt that withholding funds at this juncture would jeopardize the entire project,” the Commission wrote.

In other wins for Norwalk Public Schools, the Planning Commission recommends $728,350 for instructional technology and $363,500 for curriculum, in both cases half what the Board requested. Dachowitz had recommended nothing for IT and $250,000 for curriculum. The Commission wrote that their amount provides “not full but sustainable support.”

A Planning Commission recommendation for DPW touches on education: it would fully fund requested repairs at the Nathaniel Ely center with $275,000, a request Dachowitz recommended refusing entirely via a “0.”

“Nathan Ely houses one of the largest pre-schools in Norwalk.  Major concern is the upgrade of the HVAC system,” the Planning Commission wrote.

The Planning Commission would spend $500,000 for stormwater management, when Dachowitz recommended nada for an $875,000 request.

“This is a continuation of a five-year plan to comply with the State of Connecticut mandated MS4 program. Reducing pollutants in stormwater runoff before it enters storm sewer systems important aspect for a City that enjoys many miles of shoreline,” the Commission wrote.

The Planning Commission recommends cutting DPW’s pavement appropriation by $1 million, making it $6 million. This is a recommendation the Commission makes year after year, and Rilling ignores.

The $3 million increase recommended by the Commission also:

  • Would include $100,000 for Rowayton sidewalks, “to continue required upgrades to maintain the safety of pedestrians.”
  • Would fully fund $50,000 requested for the Norwalk River Valley Trail
  • Would fully fund $90,000 requested for Transportation Master Plan Implementation. “With increased traffic challenges, it is imperative that the City be well poised with a comprehensive plan.”
  • Would cut money for the Entrepreneurship Microgrant Program, from the $100,000 recommended by Dachowitz to $75,000. The Department of Economic and Community Development asked for $200,000. “While a worthwhile endeavor, it can be augmented by other resources at the City, State and Federal level to support entrepreneurship,” the Commission wrote.
  • Would fully fund an $80,000 request for ADA compliance, a column Dachowitz put a “0” in. “It is imperative that the City supports and provides appropriate accommodations to those with mobility impairments,” the Commission wrote.
  • Would fully fund the library’s $38,000 request for Norwalk newspaper digitalization. “This has been an on-going program for many years and this funding will allow for completion of this unassuming but important and worthwhile project.”

The recommendation puts the ball in Rilling’s court and the following analysis shows how that usually goes.

 

A four-year history of Planning Commission changes, in terms of wins and losses

2017-18

  • Loss: The Planning Commission would have cut spending to the Department of Public Works. Instead, Rilling increased it to more than the finance director recommended. The Council approved Rilling’s $9,695,000 recommendation.
  • Loss: The Planning Commission would have increased spending to the Norwalk Fire Department. Rilling dropped it back to the $945,000 recommended by Finance. Council approval followed.
  • Loss: The Planning Commission would have cut spending to Norwalk Public Schools. Rilling increased it to more than the finance director recommended. The Council approved Rilling’s $93 million.
  • Loss: The Planning Commission would have cut spending to Recreation & Parks. Rilling increased it to more than the finance director recommended. The Council approved Rilling’s $2.8 million.
  • Loss: The Planning Commission kept the finance director’s recommendation for library funding. Rilling increased it to $146,000. Council approved.

 

 

2018-19

  • Loss: The Planning Commission recommended slashing the Finance recommendation for $59.4 million in school spending to $15.6 million. Rilling reinstated the $59.4 million and the Council kept that number.
  • Win: The Planning Commission recommended spending $1.5 million on Norwalk Police combined dispatch. Rilling kept that and so did the Common Council.
  • Loss: The Planning Commission recommended spending $671,000 on the Norwalk Fire Department, when Finance had recommended $35,000. Rilling took it back down to $45,000. The Council agreed.
  • Loss: The Planning Commission recommended spending $9.86 million on the Department of Public Works, when Finance had recommended $9.1 million. Rilling took it back down to $8.9 million. The Council agreed.
  • Win: The Planning Commission recommended increasing the money for Recreation & Parks, from the $627,000 recommended by Finance to $2.2 million. Rilling made it $1.6 million. The Council authorized $1.7 million.
  • Loss: The Planning Commission recommended spending $75,000 on a pop-up library. Rilling took it back to the Finance Department’s recommendation for zero funding, and the Common Council agreed. The Council approved using capital budget funds that were left over from other projects to buy the vehicle. It’s come in handy during the pandemic.
  • Loss: The Planning Commission recommended increasing the money for Redevelopment Agency, from the $750,000 recommended by Finance to $1.25 million. Rilling took it back down to $750,000 and the Council agreed.
  • Win: The Planning Commission recommended spending $115,000 on Smith Street historical buildings, when Finance had recommended nothing. Rilling cut it to $100,000 and the Council agreed.
  • Win: The Planning Commission recommended spending $30,000 on ADA access to Mill Hill, another Historical Commission project, when Finance had recommended nothing. Rilling kept that in the plan and the Council agreed.
  • Loss: The Planning Commission recommended doubling the Finance recommendation for Wall Street improvements, from $500,000 to $1 million. Rilling took it back down to $500,000. The Council agreed.
  • Anomaly: The Planning Commission agreed with Finance that $110,000 should be borrowed for the Human Relations and Fair Rent department to fund ADA compliance. Rilling agreed, too. The Common Council authorized $30,000.

 

2019-20

  • Win, partially: The Planning Commission increased the recommendation for the fire department, from 1,809,000 to 1,893,000. Rilling dropped it to 1,830,000 and the Council approved it.
  • Win, partially: The Planning Commission increased the recommendation for the Department of Public Works, from the $9.7 million recommended by Finance to $10.7 million. Rilling recommended $9.9 and the Council approved.
  • Loss: The Planning Commission increased the recommendation for Transportation, Mobility & Parking from $800,000 to $1,155,000. Rilling recommended $875,000 and the Council approved.
  • Win: The Planning Commission increased the recommendation for the Board of Education by $33,000. Rilling kept that, making it a nearly $23.6 million request approved by the Council.
  • Win, partially: The Planning Commission increased the recommendation for Recreation & Parks from the nearly $2.9 million recommended by Finance to nearly $3.5 million. Rilling made it nearly $3.2 million. The Council approved just over $3.2 million.
  • Loss: The Planning Commission would have cut the Redevelopment Agency from the $750,000 recommended by Finance to $625,000. Rilling upped it to $875,000. The Council approved that.

2020-21

  • Loss, partially: The Planning Commission cut the Finance recommendation for $273 million in school construction to $55.3 million. Rilling brought it back up to $102.7 million. Some of that concerned funding a new Norwalk High School. The Council approved $102.7 million.
  • Loss: The Planning Commission recommended spending $140,000 on a firing range for the police department. Rilling took it out of the budget, back to the zero recommended by Finance. The Council kept it at zero.
  • Loss: The Planning Commission halved the $13.5 million recommended for combined dispatch. Rilling funded the full amount. The Council approved that.
  • Loss: The Planning Commission voted to recommend full funding of the fire department’s $547,866 request. Rilling dropped it to $425,866, which the Council approved. Finance had recommended $365,366.
  • Win: The Planning Commission increased the Department of Public Works’ recommendation from $22.2 million to $25.7 million. Rilling recommended $26.2 million.
  • Win, partially: The Planning Commission increased the recommendation for Transportation, Mobility & Parking from $1.4 million to $1.8 million. Rilling made it $1.55 million. The Council approved that.
  • Loss: The Planning Commission cut Business Development and Tourism from $200,000 to $150,000. Rilling brought it back up. The Council approved that.
  • Win: The Planning Commission rejiggered the recommendation for the Historical Commission. The total remained the same throughout the process, and Rilling kept the Commission’s refiguring.
  • Loss: The Planning Commission cut the library’s request for auditorium work. Rilling reinstated it. The Council approved the $68,000 expense.

 

Updated, 8:47 p.m. March 17: Correction concerning the Norwalk Public Library request.

6 comments

John ONeill March 10, 2021 at 8:38 am

Regarding fixing the bathrooms — $ 1 Million Dollars is a lot of toilets!! If that’s the cost of fixing the bathrooms let’s do it, but geez that’s a big chunk. Can anyone tell us how the bathrooms fell into disrepair? Are students allowed to bring sledgehammers to school? In current culture do we discipine students who destroy stalls or is that considered OK by current administration?
..So, we not only don’t challenge our students (Minimum grade is 50 if you do absolutely nothing if you recall) Our teachers are evaluated for being sociologists as much as actually teaching. And now students destroy bathroom’s and are not held accountable? Call me old fashion, but this all sounds ridiculous to me. I call on Henry Dachowitz to do a thorough investigation into what the heck is going on..This is ridiculous.
Call me..I know 20 plumbers in Norwalk alone that can fix the freaking bathrooms for less than 1 million dollars. In fact, they’ll throw in a roll of toilet paper as a bonus..

Sharon Dressler March 10, 2021 at 9:00 am

Didn’t the Senate just approve alot for schools. Should be plenty if Hartford sends it down

Margaret March 10, 2021 at 3:02 pm

I again wonder how do bathrooms get in such disrepair. Can’t we get someone from BOE or facilities to access the bathrooms at EVERY school. I ask again why are we not checking and assessing them and repairing as we go along. The solution has to include how not to let this happen again

Justin Matley March 10, 2021 at 9:52 pm

@Sharon
By current law, federal money is not for operating or capital costs.
It is for Covid-related resources and programs only. Things like extra summer school and temporary staff, further HVAC : filtration upgrades, additional technology needs going into new year, mental health support, etc. Much of these needs are still being studied to see what is necessary based on student needs and timeline.

It’s also very unclear when and how this money will be disbursed.

Justin Matley March 10, 2021 at 9:56 pm

@John
I don’t disagree we should due our diligence in finding the most cost effective ways to resolve these issues, but Norwalk has over 30 schools, the majority of which have bathrooms in need of upgrades. And by upgrades, we mean “get to baseline”. Many of these are redos as the arrangements need to be reworked to accommodate more kids and better orientation for privacy and reworked plumbing to go with it. It’s not just replacing a few toilets and doors.

George March 11, 2021 at 6:39 am

With regards to the bathroom repairs. With the million dollars funding this project think if what the possibilities are.

There are boys bathrooms next to girls bathrooms. Can you still use the terms boys and girls or should I say bathrooms known as He’s and bathrooms known as She’s? Figuring out which bathroom to use might be to stressful for little adults formerly known as children.

Anyway, why not fix one and renovate the other into a class room? I mean with the gender neutral crowd screaming this makes perfect sense right.

Think of the savings while adding classrooms for the new residents that will be arriving soon.

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