By Fred Wilms, chairman
Board of Estimate & Taxation
NORWALK – The city of Norwalk has turned the corner. Increasingly we see signs of financial progress – indicating we have left the recession behind.
The recession hit Norwalk in 2008 and caused city revenues to drop. While the property tax collection rate thankfully held steady around 98 percent, annual revenues from the conveyance tax, building permit fees, recording fees and investment income plummeted from $15 million to $5 million. Cumulative lost revenue through 2012 was a staggering $40 million.
On top of that, the stock market tanked. All city pension plans experienced significant losses because of their defined benefit nature. Since the city charter requires all pension plans to be kept actuarially sound, pension contributions increased from $2 million in 2008 to $10 million this year. That was a cumulative $18 million spending increase.
On top of everything were double-digit increases in employee health care costs and post retirement liabilities (OPEB).
Given the lost revenues and higher costs, keeping the average annual tax increases for the past three years at 2.53 percent and for the past five at 2.26 percent was a significant challenge. However we still managed to do so while retaining our blue chip AAA debt ratings plus preserving all key services and programs.
Under the mayor’s direction, and with strong support from city officials, the Common Council, BET and Board of Education, the city has now made significant progress restraining employee benefit costs, plus finding better ways to provide services.
Here are recent positive developments:
• Increasing revenues. Total conveyance tax, investment income, recording and building permit fees grew from $5.3 million on 2012 to $6.7 million in 2013. This year we are forecasting $8 million. Behind these numbers is the improved real estate activity.
• Pension reform. The city just concluded with all non-public safety unions to put new employees hired after July 1, 2012 into 401K style defined contribution plans. Current employees will contribute more towards their traditional plans. Projected savings over the next ten years are $10.4 million. Furthermore the city settled with the Fire Fighters union which increases contributions and establishes a more sustainable plan for new hires. Projected savings are $3.5 million.
• Health care cost reform. In the same union negotiations, high deductible health saving plans (HSA) have been introduced, plus employees will contribute more. Expected savings are $1.2 million over the next three years.
• OPEB reform. These liabilities should drop by $30 million, as all new hires after July 1, 2013 will receive modified retirement health insurance plans. Also current employees will contribute more to their plans.
• Accountability. The city holds all grant recipients accountable for the tax payer dollars they receive. With the well known problems at NEON, the BET eliminated $1.3 million annual funding to them.
• Better ways of providing services. By outsourcing garbage collection, savings over the next ten years could be $17 million. The subsequent move to single stream recycling enhances the environment. Also the closing of the moribund Norwalk Museum is expected to save taxpayers $1.8 million over ten years. New life has been breathed into Norwalk history by the Norwalk Historical Society and the Norwalk Library.
• The Board of Ed $4 million budget overrun. The BOE has now fully retired the deficit. The recommendations of independent accounting firm, Blum Shapiro, have been implemented. We will not have this problem again.
• Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA). While the WPCA is rarely in the news, taxpayers may have noticed no increase in their sewer fees this year.
In conclusion, Norwalk has emerged from the recession strong. As a result we can look to the future with confidence. Norwalk has turned the corner.
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