By Diane C2:
“Things Norwalkers Really Need to Know”
NORWALK, Conn. – Exposing unpopular facts about Norwalk has its consequences, not the least of which are scathing personal attacks on anyone who dares to point out even the most minor of imperfections. Often, just asking questions can be seen as challenging the authority of the powers that be. Sure makes asking the tough questions, well, really tough.
And so I thought a long while about whether to submit this opinion piece, knowing that I’m going to broach a subject related to one of several “sacred cows” in Norwalk: the famous Maritime Aquarium and their infamous financial debt to this city.
Here are my questions to elected and appointed officials of Norwalk:
• How is it possible, even as they approach their 25th anniversary, that the Maritime Aquarium still has more than 25 years of unpaid debt, totaling $35 million, to the City of Norwalk?
• How can our city in good conscience “fire sale” residential properties for past due property taxes of less than $10,000 and yet ignore the unpaid loan of the Maritime Aquarium?
• Which former and current Common Council members and mayors now serve or have ever served on the Maritime Authority or as Trustee? And why haven’t they coordinated the repayment of the $35 million debt?
• Finance folks at City Hall confirmed that the Aquarium does not pay its debt because the contract was restructured to allow them to pay only after they have excess revenues. Problem is their business strategy so far ensures that they never have any net excess revenues. Why did our elected officials allow this happen?
• Given that the contract was renegotiated in favor of the aquarium, why can’t it be renegotiated again, right now, in the favor of Norwalk taxpayers, so that the debt repayment is a top-line budget item, and not net excess revenues?
• The minutes of the Maritime Authority’s June 2012 meeting indicate annual revenues in excess of $10 million. Ten million dollars. If their expenses can include a director’s salary of more than $200,000 annually, and total salaries plus fringe that make up 43 percent of their budget (also on their minutes), then don’t you agree they can afford some taxpayer payback?
• When has a consultant, this city, or state tourism officials ever conducted an audit to confirm the highly touted, much anticipated and oft-quoted “millions” in revenue that the Aquarium reportedly generates for the city and state? As for local revenue, you can watch the stream of “destination” visitors for yourselves – they visit only the aquarium, where they can spend their tourism dollars in one spot for entertainment, dining and souvenirs. If someone can prove they are generating money for local businesses or the city, please do so.
Yes, these are the tough and unpopular questions. And yes the Maritime Aquarium is a wonderful family-friendly and educational gem in Fairfield County. However, no matter how worthy the cause or the endeavor, our elected and appointed officials simply cannot continue to execute contracts in good faith with the expectation of repayment in a timely manner and then choose to ignore the 800-pound shark in the room. Think of the capital improvements $35 million can buy. And think teachers and cops. Think money to update our technology to streamline processes and save money. Think money for playgrounds. Or think about my personal favorite – lower tax increases.
In their June 2012 minutes, the Maritime Authority reported “Annual operating revenue of $10,928,000…and operating expenses of $10,928,000…”. They spend or reserve what they bring in, and pay all their bills apparently, except ours. As someone more eloquent than I recently said, “Not-for-profit is a tax status, not a business model.” The authority should authorize expenditures for only what the aquarium absolutely needs, including their debt to Norwalk.
Perhaps getting paid back is a pipe dream to some but I think taxpayers can hope for two things at this point: That no one in this or any future administration considers forgiving the debt of the Maritime Authority and that some fiscally-responsible officials will restructure the Maritime debt agreement to guarantee timely and full repayment of their $35 million indebtedness to us taxpayers.