I came across an old interview with the late comedian, Joan Rivers. During it, she explained her well known catchphrase, Can We Talk? She said, “I always try to be very honest – my humor is truly stripping everything…” Ms. Rivers’ brand of comedy was bare bones, but refreshingly honest. With her it was, “Let’s stop this nonsense.” Such is my tone with this mayoral race – honest and frank, but a lot less funny. City Hall needs to get its financial house in order. A “top down,” professionally managed strategic overhaul of our budgeting process would reveal real issues impacting residents.
During the last mayoral election, I called out these financial issues. Since then, they’ve only compounded. Longtime residents are concerned about being able to afford to STAY in Norwalk. That’s why we need honest leadership that protects residents with a financial view that extends beyond the next election. This weekend, BOE member, Bruce Kimmel claimed in an op-ed endorsement for Mr. Rilling, that I couldn’t back up my financial concerns. It’s unfortunate he didn’t attend one of my Meet Me in the Middle town halls because he’d have heard me express what he should already know.
Can we talk? These are six issues impacting city costs, taxes and our quality of life that I’ll address as mayor:
- Increased population growth. More people means more expenses but not necessarily enough revenue. Resident pleas for smart, scaled development have been ignored. Thousands of rental apartments later and it’s still insufficient to support the growing budget. Since the 2013 revaluation, the Grand List grew 12 percent – $12.8B to $14.3B. Appeals and lawsuits are pending. In the same time frame, the operating budget grew 24 percent from $296M to $367M.
- Overuse of redevelopment tax credits. Closed door negotiations, blight designations and tax credits have defined city redevelopment. Local, state or federal dollars have been used on projects, ranging from the mall (where sales taxes go to Hartford) to affordable apartments with POKO and Washington Village replacement. Unfortunately, per unit construction costs well exceed the median price of a family home in Norwalk, currently valued at ~ $412,000.
- Household income lower than city salaries, as private sector struggles. Median household income in Norwalk is ~$80,000, less than most city employees. Last December, ~3700 employees/contractors were on the payroll. In reviewing the 2018 salary list, more than a third of full-time workers made over six figures when factoring in benefits. I’m not advocating they take a pay cut, only that city hall shouldn’t be the best place to find a job. Private sector confidence remains low as jobs exit the state. This isn’t sustainable. City Hall must be more pro-active in attracting small business.
- Not business friendly. Norwalk needs small businesses. Little improvement has been made to our cumbersome permitting process, discouraging free enterprise. It shouldn’t take a restaurant owner nine months to set up in Norwalk compared to eight weeks in a neighboring town. Parking Authority changes to the struggling Wall Street area have been almost draconian to local businesses.
- Lack of ordinance enforcement. Issues like blight and over-crowded apartments result from limited enforcement. Not enough inspectors? Last year’s reorganization produced only another management layer. Some positions generate cost, others protect taxpayers. Without enough building inspectors, illegal apartments can create health and safety hazards, legal liabilities and depreciate neighboring home values.
- Education represents 54% of the budget and growing. Approximately, 11,500 students attend Norwalk schools with 500 added in the last six years. Free and reduced lunch students are now nearly 60 percent of the school population. On average, $17,000 is spent per student and more for those with higher needs. Yet Hartford continues to shortchange us. We were plaintiffs in the Education Cost Sharing lawsuit over a decade ago, but nothing has changed. This year, Hartford returned $10M towards our $200M education budget. Recently, the BOE made a special budget request of $1.2M for our new arrivals. As expenses increase, less will be available for other city services without raising taxes. We need other sources of revenue.
With almost 90,000 residents and growing, Norwalk needs a mayor with a long-term strategic view, financial literacy and better advocacy skills. It’s the taxpayers who gave the city its AAA bond rating and we’re struggling. This election is about better accountability and checks and balances to make sure we remain an affordable and livable city. I’m committed to that. Nothing short of Norwalk’s future depends on it!