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Norwalk tax board sets operating budget

Director of Management and Budgets Bob Barron
Director of Management and Budgets Bob Barron discusses buckets of money at Monday’s Board of Estimate and Taxation meeting in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – The SoNo Stars and the Mayor’s Summer Youth program are slated for funding in the newly approved 2015-16 Norwalk operating budget, as is a new engineer for the Department of Public Works. A South Norwalk Community Center enrichment program is not.

The Board of Estimate and Taxation stayed within the operating budget cap imposed by the Common Council as it voted Monday to take $51,000 out of a $12 million insurance fund to keep the SoNo Stars, a group of disabled people who clean SoNo streets, in business, as well as to show local donors that the city supports the Mayor’s Summer Youth program. SoNoCC Executive Director Kelly Robertson was told that she needs to get creative to find funding, that the center’s entire budget cannot come out of taxpayer dollars. A grant for the Fair Housing office was also left out of the city’s operating budget.

The BET began its meeting $70,000 over the $309,714,111 cap for spending from Norwalk tax dollars set by the Council.  It ended the meeting on the money, with a $327,030,611 total expenditure and $17, 316,500 in intergovernmental revenues.

Robertson was looking for $26,000 for enrichment programs for the children in the After the Bell program, including classes in art, chess, cooking and dance. But her attempts to answer questions from BET members drew confusion, and more questions.

“There isn’t the kind of clarity here that we usually get in our grant applications,” BET Chairman Jim Clark finally said.

BET member Anne Yang Dwyer told her to think of other ways to raise money. So did BET member Erik Anderson.

“This might be the year for you, as your first full year (as executive director) to really get some creative initiatives going because unfortunately the money is not there,” Anderson said.

Clark pointed out that the After the Bell program is being paid for by the Board of Ed, which is also taxpayer money. He asked her how much of SoNoCC’s budget comes from Norwalk tax dollars.

Mayor Harry Rilling
Mayor Harry Rilling listens to SoNoCC Executive Director Kelly Robertson at Monday’s Board of Estimate and Taxation meeting in City Hall.

“They are changing with it because it has, we have gone now, this year we will be going to a six week program, because we will be starting a new fourth, and I am still waiting for them to actually give me that budget. The contract that we did sign, that was what I used for these numbers, and for these numbers to be accurate,” Robertson said.

A proposed $16,000 increase to the Fair Rent Office to fund administrative support was also slashed, because Norwalk Fair Housing Officer Margaret Suib has $4,000 left in her account this year. Director of Management and Budgets Bob Barron said Suib has gotten in-kind donations, and is not confident that her account will stay inflated, but BET members said she should be encouraged to come in for a special appropriation if she needs it.

Mayor Harry Rilling said it was important to fund the $20,000 for the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment program, which would fund job training, in addition to the $70,000 that is already in the budget.

“There is a lot of community support either in dollars or in in-kind services, and it’s important for the city, if this is the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment program, it’s important for the city to show that we are participating to a degree because we are asking for lots of money from the private sector,” Rilling said.

It sounds like the permit engineer will pay for itself, Clark said, after Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord again talked about Eversource and its desire to accelerate the permit process.

“He keeps telling me he could twice the work done if we were able to get permits put in in a timely fashion,” Alvord said.

The added benefit, besides increased property taxes as Eversource upgrades its Norwalk infrastructure in a project that may take close to two decades, is that the company also pays for pavement restoration after digging up streets, he said. That has funded pavement work in recent years, he said.

No one from the SoNo Stars was at the meeting, although last week a strong showing was made at a Planning committee meeting where a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) was requested for the program.

Council members said the city should fund SoNo Stars. BET members included the program in the budget without much comment.

A consultant recommended about $12 million in the insurance fund, which is slightly higher than he had recommended in November, Hamilton said. It’s an estimate, he said. The BET could take $88,000 out of that to balance its budget, he said.

“Quite frankly, we could go $20,000 over or $88,000 under,” Rilling said.

“My recommendation is we go with consultant’s number. However, the Board of Estimate is not required to go with the consultant’s number. You can take a small risk. … You can accept the recommendation or you can tweak it slightly if you so desire.”

Rilling said that wasn’t unprecedented. “It’s been done in the past, they have taken the number and completely wiped out the increase request.”

Hamilton said that was done several years ago.

“Frankly, for being this close to the budget, as opposed to going back to the Council and asking them to amend the cap it’s probably not worth it for $40,000,” Hamilton said.

Rilling said the move would allow the summer youth program to be funded.

Clark said $88,000 out of $12 million was a very small risk, but asked if the BET was comfortable with $51,000. Anderson clarified that the permit engineer would be funded, as would the summer youth and the SoNo Stars. The SoNoCC and Fair Housing would not.

That was correct, Clark said.

The vote was unanimous.

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