NORWALK, Conn. – A budget that is less than originally expected was passed Monday night by the Board of Estimate and Taxation. That means good news for taxpayers, as the tax rate isn’t going up as much as originally planned. For the schools, though, the news is not so great: A Board of Education member said the best case scenario is $900,000 less for Norwalk schools than expected when the process again.
Uncertainty at the state level makes it impossible to predict what the final outcome will be for the next school year, BOE Finance Director Mike Barbis said. “Right now we’re $2.6 million apart between what the city is giving us and what the board passed (in its proposed operating budget),” Barbis said. “All the new stuff is out the window.”
That includes not restoring the library aide and facilities manager positions that were cut last year, as well as not hiring a science curriculum specialist.
The BET unanimously voted to pass the recommendation from the finance department for a $306 million operating budget, $636,420 under the cap set by the Common Council and $311,243 less than what was approved in the tentative operating budget. The average mill rate had been expected to go up 3.9 percent, but it is now at 3.7 percent.
For a property owner in the Fourth District, this means a tax increase of 3.792 percent.
Taxes on a home at the median assessed value of $287,945 will be $6,388 in fiscal year 2014, which is $243.13 more than fiscal year 2013.
More information is available in the PDF attached below.
The budget includes a $1.74 million draw down from the general fund balance. Finance Director Thomas Hamilton said he didn’t think that would affect Norwalk’s Triple A bond rating status, but said Norwalk is now “toward the lower end of the median of triple A’s” while it had been at the high end.
BET member Michael Kolman said he sent an email to other members proposing using some of the $636,420 discrepancy to reduce the draw down and give more money to the schools, but no one responded to his email.
Mayor Richard Moccia discouraged that idea. “The problem is we need to leave a little reserve because we don’t know what the state is going to actually give us,” he said. “We’ve got two different budgets coming in. One, the governor’s, which didn’t help us, and the Appropriations Committee, which basically killed us.”
It was not the Appropriations Committee, but the Education Committee recommendation that cut the increase Gov. Dannel Malloy proposed for Norwalk’s ECS funding by $1.4 million, Hamilton mentioned without overtly correcting the mayor. The Appropriations Committee subsequently recommended a $1.3 million increase for Norwalk school funding, but BOE officials are not yet certain what that money could be used for. If it is Alliance District funding, the BOE is basically handcuffed, Barbis said, but if it is Priority School money, the board will have greater discretion on its use.
Malloy’s proposal to eliminate some state grants has created considerable confusion at the municipal level. Moccia said he had been to Hartford four times in the past month and a half and that he thought a state Local Capital Improvement Program (LOCIP) grant could be used to fund safety improvements at the schools rather than funding those improvements from the operating budget, a conversation he said city officials have been having with BOE members.
“I think the Board of Ed and its members have to start looking again at the budget and thinking are there items there that can be removed from the operating budget that could keep programs or positions in place rather than spending operating money for alarm systems and other maintenance items that could lead toward school safety,” he said.
Barbis said the BOE had only planned to spend $100,000 on safety, money included in the capital budget. The board planned to study the situation this year and is not ready to invest in safety yet; planned improvements such as locks and numbering doors are not expensive.
“There’s really nothing in our operating budget for safety,” he said.
Barbis’s $900,000 “best case scenario” shortage is derived from the $2.6 million difference in what the board expected to have and what the city is giving, and the possibility that the state will give Norwalk the $1.7 million increase it expected in Malloy’s proposed budget in a form that the schools can spend freely.
BET Chairman Fred Wilms said no budget is perfect, but he sees many positive developments and he thinks Norwalk is turning the corner, as revenues that had “plummeted” are now on “an upward trend.”
That includes building permits, which are forecast to be $450,000 higher than originally expected.
He also said holding agencies responsible for the way money is spent can allow the city to direct funds to other areas.
“I like the fact that we continue to hold some groups accountable,” he said. “NEON came to us at the beginning of the year and continued to ask for $1.4 million. That’s not in this budget because we made a decision that groups that ask for taxpayer money have to be held accountable and spend that money wisely.”
Education reformer Lisa Thomson, who attended the meeting, said she was disappointed.
“I’m realistic about the budget,” she said. “It’s tough times right here now, economically, in the state as well as in the city. My frustration is this isn’t Washington, this is Norwalk, and we are in this mess because we have gotten rid of two reformers.”
She meant former Superintendent Susan Marks and Chief Operating Officer Elio Longo, who has resigned after 1½ years on the job.
Longo is credited with many improvements in BOE financial documentation and with finding budget irregularities.
“You can’t ignore the fact that the people who either made us more efficient or relevant are gone,” Thomson said. “You can’t ignore the people side of this business.”
Correction made, 3 a.m.