NORWALK, Conn. – A miniscule portion of Norwalk’s next capital budget got a maximum amount of attention Tuesday evening in a sometimes contentious Common Council meeting marked by bursts of laughter and a discussion that resembled a mayoral debate.
The purchase of a $32,000 pick-up truck for the Norwalk Police Department was sharply questioned by Councilman Matt Miklave (D-District A), one of four men vying to be the Democratic Party challenger to incumbent Republican Mayor Richard Moccia this fall. Moccia shot barbs back at Miklave, as well as Councilman Michael Geake (U-District B) and Fred Bondi (R-At Large), who both took exception to parts of the budget, or the process it was developed under.
Deputy Police Chief David Wrinn said in an early March Planning Committee public hearing that the pick-up truck purchase was needed for snow plowing. Asked by Miklave at that time why the Department of Public Works didn’t plow the lot, Wrinn said, “It’s just more efficient for a small lot like ours that gets used all the time, it’s more efficient to do something like that than to try to pull somebody off the street,” he said. Crews can hold off and plow the schools at night, he said, but the police operate 24/7 and don’t have the option of waiting for it to be done later.
Tuesday night, Miklave called DPW Director Hal Alvord to the microphone and asked about the pick-up truck purchase, but he got the predictable answer: “That’s not my department.”
Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E), chairman of the Public Works Committee, said he had called Chief Thomas Kulhawik and asked for more information following the public hearing. The truck would be used for snow plowing, he said, which “wasn’t any different from what we heard.”
McCarthy said having the police handle their own plowing would not take manpower off the street. Instead, he said, it would “help get them on the street.”
He said the truck would also be used for more traditional work when not in use as a plow.
“In events where there were arrests made, where there were large items, as there have been in the past, that needed to be transported from one part of the city to the police department or potentially from the city to Hartford, or many other uses for the pick-up truck, this would be incorporated,” McCarthy said.
Miklave said he would have liked to have heard that at the hearing.
“I have to say I’m pretty shocked with that statement,” he said. “I’m shocked because that wasn’t the testimony the police department gave at the public hearing. … It raises a question in my mind about the information we are getting as the result of the public hearings that we have.”
There is another reason DPW trucks cannot be used to plow the police lot.
Alvord explained with his self-described “diplomatic skills” that the inside of the police station is designed better than the outside – DPW snow plow blades are 11 feet wide; the gate is 10 feet wide, he said. Also, there are more vehicles in the lot than there are marked spaces, he said. There is no where to put the snow and the aisles aren’t set up for a snow plow.
Miklave wanted to know who handled the plowing this year and how much it cost. Alvord, who said the DPW leaves a Bobcat – a small front-end loader – at the station throughout the winter, said plowing the lot was subcontracted to Guardian Services, but he didn’t know how much the contract was for.
The mayor said he thought the contract had been for $24,000 to $25,000, though he wasn’t sure. The contractor cannot stay there 24 hours, he said, and the wind may blow the snow back in.
“We need the officers back out on the street,” he said. “I don’t want to get into a debate. We have an $18 million capital budget here and every dollar counts. This is $32,000 on a pick-up that could be used in cases of necessity to plow snow. I don’t know what was said at the public hearing. The chief is not here tonight; I don’t think he thought this was going to be a cause cèlébre.”
“I’m not trying to make this a cause cèlébre, Mr. Mayor, but the thing I am having trouble understanding is this simple line,” Miklave said.
The city has duplicate snow plowing services with no coordination, he said, causing Moccia to say, “I’m not going to agree with you that we’re not going to coordinate.”
Miklave said he had been interrupted. “When I stop talking that’s the signal that I’m finished,” he said. “I’ll stop talking now.”
“That’s very nice of you,” Moccia replied, going on to repeat the problem of drifting snow – and throwing in a debate-like jab.
“We need to get our police out,” he said. “If you want to talk about that, you were on the council and you approved the design of the police station, maybe you should have made it 12 feet wide and we might be able to get something in there. I don’t agree with your comments, that’s all.”
Bondi then raised the mayor’s hackles, questioning the purchase of a new prisoner van, as Moccia looked up the minutes of the public hearing where Kulhawik had explained that the old van was rusted.
Bondi persisted, repeatedly saying cops should stay on the street, not plow snow in the lot. Councilman Nick Kydes (R-District C) said patrol officers wouldn’t do that, and Moccia said desk officers or the maintenance man would come out.
“They have to come from somewhere,” Bondi said.
“They’re in the building!” Moccia said. “ … I gotta be a weatherman, too.”
Another member of the Republican caucus then became a thorn in the mayor’s side, asking Alvord about the need to fix the City Hall roof, which was not approved for funding.
Geake asked if mold would sneak in before it could be done, or if electrical systems might be damaged.
Alvord said no mold had been found yet.
“We do have leaks on occasion,” he said. “The most frequent one was a pretty little waterfall dripping into the atrium from the top of the third floor. I don”t think most of the city staff see the risk there because most of the leaks land on Tony Daddona’s desk. Then we get a call and we go deal with the leak.”
Geake said he wasn’t criticizing Alvord. “It just concerns me that we have a roof that needs replacing,” he said. “Forgive me for being blunt; this seems like an asinine process where we request part of the money and we accumulate part of the money for years. Then we finally fix a leaky roof. I’m just railing against what I see as utter stupidity, when you’ve got a leaking roof, you fix it.
“That’s not directed at you, believe me.”
“It must be directed at me,” Moccia said, causing laughter.
“It’s directed at the process,” Geake said.
Moccia said he had approved when former Mayor Alex Knopp had gone into debt to finance $2 million in school expansions, but said he is concerned about overburdening taxpayers.
Geake said he was ranting about the process, and the possibility of “goodies like mold or compromised electrical equipment.”
“You should have proposed I eliminate $2 million from Common Core and put it into the roof,” Moccia said.
Kydes pretty much ended the debate.
“This has gotten out of hand,” he said. “I wish there was this much debate when we were passing the operating budget. I was the only one who voted to lower the operating budget. This capital budget is a good budget.”
The budget passed unanimously.