Here we go again – the holidays are over and in Norwalk that means we’re moving rapidly into the yearly argument between the Common Council and the Board of Education over the city’s operating budget. The BOE is requesting roughly $245 million for its 2024/25 operating budget, which is an 8.2% increase over current spending. That’s more than half thecity’s overall operating expenses. (This figure excludes more than $40 million in grant funding.)
I’ve had the privilege of serving on the BOE’s finance committee for six years, and the Council’s finance committee for 14 years, eight years as its chair. My goal was always to increase cooperation and communication, at least maintain civility, between the Council and Board, which, in hindsight, could not be sustained. Moreover, I was probably guilty of some of the behavior and tactics discussed below.
The Impossible Double Bind: The Common Council is in a difficult situation. The City Charter requires it to set a limit on operating expenses, and nothing else. (Divvying up funds among the different departments is up to the Board of Estimate and Taxation.) But to develop an informed spending cap, the Council needs detailed information about the BOE’s budget proposal. In the past, Boards have been reluctant to provide that information. That should stop, the Board needs to be sensitive to the Council’s predicament. Long term, Norwalk needs to devise a structural solution to this problem; perhaps by creating a permanent Council-BOE committee that meets throughout the year; perhaps by combining the Board’s finance department with the City’s finance department, with a single finance director, who would deal with the entire operating budget.
The Arrogance of the Purse: A couple of years ago, I read a story in the local media about the inability of certain Council members to acquire information about the BOE’s operating budget. I asked my wife if I sounded that arrogant when I was on the Council. She said no, but I suspect she was more concerned with family harmony than the truth. Nonetheless, Council members need to remember that having the power of the purse – which is granted to them by the Charter – is no excuse for condescending and insulting language.
Attack, Counterattack: BOE members spend months discussing the items in the superintendent’s budget request. The Council then receives the approved BOE budget and, invariably, one or two Council members begin to raise “serious concerns” about the size of the request, and sometimes even specific line items. These speeches often imply the BOE has little concern for the fiscal well-being of Norwalk residents. And, predictably, the Board responds by devising doom and gloom scenarios for the City, triggered by the Council’s inability to appreciate the importance of education. Toning down the rhetoric is long overdue.
The Glass House Syndrome: Some Council members spend a fair amount of time closely examining the BOE budget. Which is okay. As long as it’s done constructively. However, it would be wrong to infer that Council members are exercising due diligence when it comes to the so-called City Side of the operating budget. Years ago, budget requests from City departments, besides being examined by the Mayor’s office and his finance team, went to the pertinent Council committees for review. On January 11, well into the budget cycle, I looked over the agendas of the Council committees and could not find any discussions of these types of requests or the operating budget in general. Bottom line, some Council members are throwing stones at the BOE, even though they’re living in a glass house.
(Of the eight Council committees, only the Finance Committee put the operating budget on an agenda. It happened once, on Dec. 14. However, the minutes indicate committee members did not discuss the budget per se. Instead, they discussed the budget process and what would happen after the finance director left Norwalk for another job. In contrast, on October 18 and January 11, the Finance Committee held special joint meetings with the BOE’s Finance Committee to discuss its budget.)
Our budget process needs to change. Improved communication and cooperation are essential. But not enough. The next Charter Commission would do well to examine ways to radically alter the process.