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Norwalk political notes: 2023-24 budget machinations

Dachowitz explains Rowayton forecasted 6% mill rate increase

From left, Anne Yang and Mike Mushak at Columbus Magnet School poll on Nov. 5, 2019. Yang served on the Board of Estimate and Taxation from 2013 to 2017 and is set to serve nine months this year, as Mayor Harry Rilling is appointing her to a vacant seat.

NORWALK, Conn. — Some Norwalk political notes for you, all related to the budget:

  • Grand List calculation delayed – again
  • Rilling chooses two for Tax Board, bringing it to ‘full staffing’ as arduous budget work set to start
  • Frayer asks: Why does Rowayton face a 6% tax hike?
  • Jellerette calls recommended budget ‘a relief’
  • Meek decries lack of public comment

Where’s the Grand List?

The City has, for the fourth year in a row, gotten an extra month to file its updated Grand List.

The Grand List was due Jan. 31 by State Statute but Norwalk has until Feb. 28, according to Norwalk Director of Communications Michelle Woods Matthews, who explained, “The various software upgrades, conversions and inspections of permits required additional time.”

In 2020, the Grand List was delayed due to the exodus of former Tax Assessor Michael Stewart and former Assistant Tax Assessor William O’Brien. The City did not provide explanations in 2021 and 2022, both years in which the pandemic affected many City operations.

The Grand List was delivered after the Common Council set its budget cap in the last two cycles. That shouldn’t happen this year as the budget cap will be set March 7, according to the timetable posted by the Finance Department.

The filing period for appeals will be March 1-20, Woods Matthews said.

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 not our fault,” Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz said in December. That meant both offices were therefore using an upgraded version of its existing software, Munis, for six months.

Norwalk is the last Connecticut municipality to use Munis, a reason to switch to QDS, Dachowitz has said.

As for “inspections of permits,” Woods Matthews explained, “The Building Department permits are reviewed and inspected by the Assessment Department to determine if a change in assessed value is necessary.”

Information added, 10:57 p.m.

Two BET vacancies being filled

The Common Council is set to approve two replacement Board of Estimate and Taxation members at its Tuesday meeting.

Anne Yang, who previously served on the BET for four years, would step into the seat vacated when Sheri McCready-Pritchett won election to the Board of Education in 2021. (Yes, it’s been vacant that long.) Kendrick Constant is slated to replace Ed Camacho, who was appointed to the Council last month.

The BET is charged with formulating the City’s operating budget, going over department requests with a fine tooth comb and grilling Norwalk Public Schools administrators. The Council sets a budget cap.

BET members serve four-year terms and are Mayoral appointments. Mayor Harry Rilling said he “looked at many individuals” since McCready-Pritchett left.

“I had several things I needed to consider. I could only appoint an R or a U, I wanted to appoint a woman, and I wanted to find a young person with a financial background,” he wrote.

Kendrick Constant. (Contributed)

Constant’s resume says he earned a Bachelor of Science in Finance with a minor in Accounting and Business Information Systems from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2018, and then received a certificate in Entrepreneurship Essentials from Harvard Business School Online in 2022.  He’s been an Experience Assurance Associate at RSM US LLP since Oct 2021 after over a year as Risk Assurance Experienced Associate at PwC, and he operates Constant Consulting which he founded in 2021 because he “saw a growing trend of marginalized groups who needed assistance navigating certain areas such as credit repair and business development.”

Constant graduated from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2018 with a Bachelor of Science in Finance, according to his resume. He minored in Accounting and Business Information Systems.

His term would expire Nov. 30, 2025.

Yang, who earned an M.B.A. from Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania in 1986, was on the BET from 2013 to 2017 after having served two years on the Planning Commission.

She “is a Managing Director, Strategic Portfolio Manager & ESG Committee Chair for Star Mountain Capital, an investment firm focused on small business private lending and equity investments with over $3 billion in assets under management” according to her resume, and has also been “Managing Director in investment banking and mergers and acquisitions at Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Citigroup.”

Her term would expire Nov. 20, 2023.

Why the big increase for Rowayton?

BET member James Frayer had something on his mind Monday after Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz presented Mayor Harry Rilling’s recommended 2023-24 operating budget: the forecasted mill rate for the Sixth Taxing District.

Other district real estate mill rates would increase 3.3 to 3.62% under the recommended budget but the Sixth Taxing District is looking at a 6.21% increase.

“A lot of people think of the Sixth Taxing District as being a lot of rich people down there. But there are also a lot of elderly people that moved into the Sixth Taxing District 30 years ago, when the taxes were not nearly this onerous,” Frayer said. “To have them be hit with another $1,100 in taxes is really very painful to them.”

Dachowitz said the projected mill rate was made in collaboration with Sixth Taxing District Treasurer Gil Kernan. There’s a “core” mill rate for 6TD as the City doesn’t provide garbage pickup, lighting or fire protection, the district does, Dachowitz said. According to Dachowitz, Kernan presented his budget and asked how much the mill rate should be to provide the funding needed.

6TD’s mill rate didn’t increase last year, Dachowitz said.

“It’s a very significant increase,” Frayer said, pressing with assertions that some Rowayton sections plow their own roads.

He promised to discuss it with Kernan.

Positive review

At least one BET member likes the 2.46% operating budget increase recommended by Mayor Harry Rilling.

“I’m relieved to see it,” BET member Troy Jellerette said Monday. “… I was a little alarmed when you read the paper over the last couple of months of what it could be for the citizens of this city.”

The Board of Education asked for a 12.7% increase from 2023-24. Rilling’s budget recommendation provides a 4% increase.

Jellerette praised Dachowitz for protecting the City’s triple A bond rating.

“Maintaining that means keeping interest rates low, which makes it more funds available,” he said. “… Losing our triple A rating is not a light, something light, that we should take lightly and I appreciate you the fact that you’re using it as a guardrail going forward.”

“It’s the Mayor’s recommendation,” Dachowitz replied. “He’s the one who has to balance all the different forces, what’s doable for the taxpayers and trying to fund all the different needs and as many of the wants as we can afford.”

Meek highlights standard public comment process

Dachowitz will present Rilling’s recommended 2023-24 operating budget to the Common Council at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

The lone Council Republican, District D representative Bryan Meek, said the budget meetings thus far “shut out the public.”

“Public comments are not allowed at the 2nd budget meeting happening tomorrow,” Meek wrote Monday. “No one spoke at the first one last Thursday.  The Mayor and Superintendent have been able to make their case in print and on line now for 4 days. The public will not be allowed to speak on it until 2/23/23…..14 days after it was first made public.”

This is a practice that goes back years. The City’s Finance Director traditionally presents the budget shortly after it’s produced to the full Council in a special meeting before the body’s next regular meeting. It’s designed to be kept to an hour and does not feature public comment.

The Council Finance Committee is expected to hold a public hearing on the budget Feb. 23. It would then consider a recommended budget cap, which the full Council would vote on March 7.

Another public hearing is expected March 22, when the Board of Estimate and Taxation considers citizen input after doing its deep dive into department requests. The BET is scheduled to send its operating budget to the Council by March 27.

Meek also said the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting is “mislabeled.” He didn’t explain how.

The agenda contains the same boilerplate language for every hybrid meeting, explaining how citizens can raise their hand to comment even if public comment is not allowed during the session.

Last year’s agenda for the budget presentation featured the same issue.

Common Council Special Meeting Agenda 2.14.23

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Comments

6 responses to “Norwalk political notes: 2023-24 budget machinations”

  1. Skip Hagerty

    Being a bastion of stalwart progressive thinkers, I am a bit surprised Rowayatonites wouldn’t embrace paying their fair share to help the little people of Norwalk proper.

  2. Bryan Meek

    1. “This is a practice that goes back years”. So we’re keeping with past traditions now are we? Like meeting and discussing city business IN PERSON? What other past traditions can we cherry pick?

    2. “Mislabeled”. I gave you the link. I guess you couldn’t look for yourself. The agenda file is labeled 2/13. That was yesterday.

    Bottom line is the public is being shut out as much as possible by design. If we wanted the public aware it would be widely advertised, like flag ceremonies, grant money grabs, etc… It isn’t. We’ve used the reverse 311 robocalls for less important information.

    To even get to the mislabeled agenda, you have to click on the Meetings link, then click on Agenda, then out of the list of scores of commissions and boards (many of which aren’t even active), you have to click on “Common Council – Special Meetings” not to be confused with “Common Council Meetings”.

    Now there is a link to the meeting on the main page, but for some reason we can’t provide the public the agenda from that announcement. Instead you have to know where to look as explained above.

    https://www.norwalkct.org/Archive.aspx?AMID=77

    10 years ago the city had 1870 employees. As of 6/30/22 is has 2323.

    A 24% increase. While the population has increased about half of that.

    10 years ago the city counted for 3% of all jobs. Today it is up to 4.5% and has surpassed the hospital to take over as the largest employer in the city.

    And we have fewer policeman today.

    This is simply not sustainable and hiding the facts doesn’t help either.

  3. David McCarthy

    There should be no city driven increase in the 6th Taxing District mill rate. It’s disappointing that a BET member would think so and go so far as to press staff on it. I believe Mr. Dachowitz was kindly trying to point out that the increase is being driven by the 6th Taxing District’s funding adder.

    One used to be able to Google such info, and I will post the link that clearly demonstrates this below. It is for 2019-2020, because as I have pointed out, it seems the city is blocking Google in order to prevent the average citizen (or Florida resident) from being able to easily access data.

    https://www.norwalkct.org/DocumentCenter/View/14464/FYE-2020-Mill-Rates?bidId=

  4. Nora King

    David McCarthy – though we typically don’t agree on things…you will love this. The tax assessor doesn’t live here and barely comes to Norwalk. Works remotely. On top of that they never published the appeal process for taxes this year. So Mr. Dachowitz loves to call people out but he is not running the tax assessors office correctly.

    1. I have added information to this story: The filing period for property tax appeals will reportedly be March 1-20.

  5. David McCarthy

    Nora…OH…MY…GOD….special. Hope you are well.

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