NORWALK, Conn. – A clarion call has gone out to Norwalk department heads – please look into raising your fees. Compare what you charge with what other towns are charging and see if your fees can go up.
This is an effort being spearheaded by Board of Estimate and Taxation member Anne Yang-Dwyer, who is questioning every department head as they come in to review their 2014-15 operating budget requests, a yearly ritual made more dramatic by the need to trim $500,000 off Finance Director Thomas Hamilton’s recommendation. That’s the result of the cap set by the Common Council.
Yang-Dwyer has been told that any change in fee structure would go through the council, where such things have not gone well in the past.
Parks and Recreation Department Director Mike Mocciae showed up at the workshop with a request for $14,000 over and above the amount recommended by Hamilton to fund opening gymnasiums in South Norwalk. Yang-Dwyer heaped praise on him.
“I think the way Mike manages his department is a model for all of the departments in the city,” she said. “The fact that he produces $3 million in revenue and manages this acreage and number of parks with this few people is I think extraordinary. … If you look on a P&L basis, he pretty much comes close to covering his costs.”
Fees might cover the cost of opening the gymnasiums, she said.
It’s a “perfectly legitimate argument,” Hamilton said, “but I remind you it doesn’t help us with the cap because the cap is expenses minus intergovernmental revenues. You can increase other revenues all you want and it doesn’t help us achieve that $500,000 gap. We can only add intergovernmental revenue, make the state give us more, or subtract expenses in order to adjust that cap.”
That’s defined in the charter, he said.
“We’re kind of stuck with that,” he said. “It’s a problem because of exactly that issue. You could identify revenues that will reduce the tax levy but it doesn’t get us to where you need to get on the cap unless you’re taking it from gross expenditures or you’re increasing intergovernmental revenues somehow.”
Norwalk Fire Chief Denis McCarthy’s report also drew an explainer from Hamilton.
“The finance department had been pushing us for many years about fees,” McCarthy said. “The former fire marshal went to the Ordinance Committee and put in what I consider to be a very meager – compared to other communities – a very limited fee structure. It has yielded about $55,000 in revenue that we never had before. I think that we need to go back and look at additional fees.”
Waterbury has significant fees that could be used as a model for Norwalk, he said.
“I can tell you though that the Ordinance Committee was not interested the last time around in a wholesale increase in our fee collection.”
“I think the dynamic we have here, quite frankly, is the council’s role in the operating budget is pretty limited,” Hamilton said. “They set the cap but they don’t set the mill rate. They don’t have to make the kind of decisions that you have to make in terms of what are we going to cut to get down to the cap, nor do they vote on the mill rate and have to vote to raise taxes. They have control over the fees, but if they’re just looking at the fees they’re not looking at it in the context of ‘Oh, if I’m willing to go along and increase these fire fees it’s going to mean I can reduce the mill rate,’ because they don’t have a vote on the mill rate.”
Yang-Dwyer asked Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik the reasons behind a significant jump in revenues for his department.
“That’s all extra duty revenue,” Kulhawik said. “The city charges 15 percent on every extra duty job that an officer works (on top of the fee for the labor). … Over the last several years it went from nine to 12 to 15, based on collective bargaining agreement. In addition, the amount of extra duty has grown substantially over the last few years. So it went from budgeting for revenue of $275,000 three years ago, now it’s almost $600,000.”
Yang-Dwyer asked if the numbers could be raised on licenses and permits.
“We have done that; we look at that regularly.”
The volume is small, he said. “Our rates are almost the same or a little higher than most of the other cities around. Some don’t charge for anything at all,” he said.
What about charging for false alarms?
“We do, $25 each,” he said, adding that people get two false alarms before they get charged.
There is no charge for a false 911 call, he said. That would be counter-productive.
Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord came in prepared.
“We don’t have a lot of flexibility on fees,” he said. “… (But) we can’t tell you what other communities are doing. The reason is you can go to our website and find out every fee and rate we charge, and every program we have on the city’s website. You can’t find that on any other community in Connecticut. The reason I know that is Dick (Linnartz) spent like the last week and a half trying to find that information. It’s not there. We even called other communities and they didn’t have the time to tell us.”
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities couldn’t given them the information either, he said. But the did come up with a list of transfer station rates.
According to Alvord:
• Norwalk charges $85 a ton
• New Canaan charges $80 a ton
• Stamford charges $88 a ton
• Weston charges $85 a ton
• Wilton charges $93 a ton
• Darien charges $94 a ton
• Westport charges $85 a ton
• Greenwich doesn’t charge
“You can’t believe any of those numbers I just gave you because there are other additional peripheral rules,” Alvord said. “For example, in Stamford the residents can bring 200 pounds a day of garbage for free.”
You could bring 40,000 pounds of garbage to the transfer station over the course of a year if you lived in Stamford, he said.
Norwalk residents are not charged for garbage brought in the back of an SUV or a trunk, he said.
“We are fairly generous here in Norwalk as well,” he said. Anyone in a full-size pickup truck or a trailer goes across the scale, but they still get the first ton free, he said.
“That first ton free is over $350,000,” he said. “That’s what we’re paying for that ‘free tonnage’ to come into the transfer station. … It used to be three tons free. We made a proposal to take it to zero. The council decided to take it to one. The difference between three tons and one ton was $35,000. The difference between one ton and zero is over $350,000. So there’s still an opportunity to capture some revenue there that we don’t do today.”