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Opinion: Can we talk? Issues impacting taxes and quality of life

Lisa Brinton, Republican-endorsed unaffiliated Norwalk Mayoral candidate.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!

10 comments

John ONeill October 22, 2019 at 4:38 pm

In all honesty, I really liked Mayor Rilling until I better understood the ELL Financial Issue. I realize I sound like a broken record, but I think $225 Million over the last ten years going unsupported by Hartford/DC is not small potatoes. The current $1.2 Million request is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s nothing compared to the $ 35 Million dollar cost for just THIS year. IF Mayor Rilling has had conversations over the years about getting support from Hartford/DC they have not been made public and have not bore any fruit. IF I’m wrong,I’m willing to listen to anyone who’s better informed on the issue.

TRS October 22, 2019 at 9:13 pm

Many of my friends are Norwalk teachers. They tell me all the time how tougher it’s getting each year because of all the ELL students. Some don’t speak a word of English and are just thrown into a regular full English speaking classroom. How is this helping ANYONE?

Tim October 23, 2019 at 6:17 am

Perhaps someone should do an FOI request to see exactly what this reorganization at City hall really is costing taxpayers. The Mayor said it would be net zero or close to that. My math says around 1.5 million. How about it Nancy? You game?

Isabelle Hargrove October 23, 2019 at 8:04 am

This is the kind of financial stewardship we are sorely missing with the current mayor.

Ms. Brinton is right, we have grown beyond being a small town and City Hall must be managed much more professionally or Norwalk taxpayers will pay the price.

But most shockingly…

Confronted with our schools needing to find millions because of increasing immigration, it is unfathomable to me that our mayor would not pick up the phone and call the State’s Department of Education to discuss the matter with urgency.

His cavaliere answer to Ms. Brinton asking him why was chocking. “We are in touch with the state” – which state, sir? But even more telling was the fall back on having a budget surplus that will most likely cover it. That’s right, free money on the back of local taxpayers. Why bother harassing Mr. Duff or Hartford to find funds or provide services, when you can so easily get it from the taxpayers you are supposed to represent.

We wonder why Norwalk gets so little funding from the state, wonder no more, we are not even asking!

You can bet Brinton will ask, and again, and find a way. Because when there is a will, there is a way…

Sir, without apologies, you deserve to get fired!

David Muccigrosso October 23, 2019 at 8:36 am

Lisa – I emailed your campaign about a lot of these issues yesterday. The sentiments are great. Rilling may think he’s being practical and “working with the system”, but the system clearly needs change. So what are your specific plans?

What does “smart, scaled development” look like to you?

How do we ensure affordability – how do we keep the developers from only building overpriced units for commuters?

How do we get more businesses into all these vacant storefronts?

How does Jason Milligan’s planned parking garage figure into the crisis of parking capacity? By the way, that’s not the only parking crisis; permanent spots in SoNo have been logjammed for YEARS.

There’s also a growing problem with rideshares in SoNo – since there’s no dedicated pickup lane on Washington, they hold up traffic right there in the middle of the street.

On another level, municipal one-party rule isn’t always the boogeyman it’s made out to be, but it’s still a fact of life. New election formats could help change some of the dynamics that are keeping Rilling in power – for instance, open/”jungle” elections, ranked-choice voting, approval voting, etc. Do you have any ideas or opinions there?

Bobby Lamb October 23, 2019 at 11:47 am

For someone who keeps saying safe and national politics has nothing to do with this election this lady’s list of gripes is ridiculous.

Her property taxes went down. When this is pointed out she says yes but property taxes are too variable and I never know what they’ll be one year to the next. True! Property taxes are a terrible form of taxation. You know what’s also true? It’s the only form of revenue the state let’s municipalities collect. This mayor and many before and I’m sure many after will lobby the state to allow municipalities to diversify their options. It’s been a non starter. This state relies more heavily on property taxes than any other in the country. It sucks. But it’s a state issue.

Worried about immigration? Federal issue. The feds have failed to create a workable solution for our borders. And jailing kids then dumping them on cities with no supports sucks. We need to address it. And your president is just making it worse. But it’s a federal issue.

Washington Village and POKO low income tax credits – these are federal. They come from HUD. POKO property tax deal was negotiated and agreed to by Moccia – a republican mayor. This mayor hasn’t given any tax credits. Enterprise zone (Mall, etc) is a FEDERAL program – determined by a geography designated decades ago – the mayor doesn’t get to approve them – they are as of right.

School funding? Yes – everyone agrees we should get more from ECS. So does every other town. The mayor has advocated every year for ECS reform. But again it’s a State issue.

All you’re doing is pointing out stuff people don’t like but a MAYOR doesn’t control. If these are your issues you should run for state or federal office and stop slinging mud at our city. Norwalk is fantastic and I’m sick of you constantly slamming it with no solutions.

John ONeill October 23, 2019 at 2:30 pm

@Bobby: $225+ Million over last ten years without help from Hartford is a disgrace. Next 10 years will most likely be $ 350+ Million. How is it possible that nothing has been accomplished to find support from Hartford/DC? Driving up to Hartford and coming back empty handed is not satisfactory. Why hasn’t the Mayor amplified the rhetoric needed to get proper funding? Why hasn’t Bobby Duff come back with anything? These are big dollar issues. Again, I call on the NAACP to raise their voices as their constituents are getting screwed. Where does Travis Sims stand on this? It’s only logical that low income kids will get short changed. Think about how much good $30 Million per year could do to short changed kids/people in Norwalk. Again, if I’m wrong I’ll be happy to listen.

Debora Goldstein October 23, 2019 at 4:41 pm

Perhaps the Mayor could have used some of his “face time” with the Governor and our Federal legislators to ask for help with funding over the years…

https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2016/11/malloy-marks-opening-of-veterans-park-ice-rink/
https://www.thehour.com/norwalk/article/Rilling-sworn-in-as-Norwalk-mayor-by-Gov-Malloy-8234900.php
https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2013/10/gov-malloy-school-administrators-endorse-rilling-for-mayor/
https://patch.com/connecticut/norwalk/governor-dannel-p-malloy-to-visit-norwalk-for-rilling-fundraiser
https://himes.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/himes-malloy-blumenthal-murphy-and-rilling-announce-federal-grant-walk
https://www.thehour.com/news/article/For-Washington-Village-redevelopment-lofty-10842185.php
https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2018/10/norwalk-marks-opening-of-soundview-landing-aka-new-washington-village-part-1/
https://www.thehour.com/news/article/Malloy-announces-Walk-Bridge-replacement-plans-8075431.php
https://www.carvernorwalk.org/blog/2019/6/28/join-mayor-rilling-and-congressman-himes-for-our-playground-ribbon-cutting-on-monday-july-1st
https://himes.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/himes-norwalk-officials-and-labor-leaders-press-long-term-bridge-road
https://himes.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/himes-rilling-announce-law-enforcement-grant-norwalk
https://portal.ct.gov/Office-of-the-Lt-Governor/News/Press-Releases/2019/03-2019/LT-GOV-BYSIEWICZ-CONGRESSMAN-HIMES-AND-MAYOR-RILLING-KICK-OFF-2020-CENSUS-EFFORTS-IN-NORWALK
https://portal.ct.gov/Wyman-Archive/Press-Room/Press-Releases/2014/04-2014/FRIDAY-GOV-MALLOY-MAKES-HIGHER-EDUCATION-ANNOUNCEMENT-IN-NORWALK-PARTICIPATES-IN-PLAYGROUND-DEDICATI

Just sayin’

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