I joined the Common Council in February of 2019. Since then, each budget season has presented its own challenges, and this year is no exception. While the Board of Estimate and Taxation, the City’s budget-setting body, is the ultimate decision maker on the City’s operating budget, the Common Council is responsible for setting the operating budget cap, which we will do at our Special Meeting tonight. Throughout this budget process, my fellow Councilmembers and I have shared our perspectives publicly. We know that we cannot please everyone. But we are committed to working in the best interest of our City.
As far as the operating budget process goes, as Councilmembers, our hands are tied. Due to State law, the only way municipalities in Connecticut can raise revenue is through property taxes. Additionally, the Council’s role in the budget process is to set a spending cap on how much the City and Board of Education combined can spend in any given year. Our duty as the Common Council is to find the balance between necessary expenses and how much tax property burden our residents can bare. As elected officials, our primary duty is to be the best stewards of City taxes and to protect the interest of all our residents to the best of our ability and with integrity when it comes to our role in setting the operating budget cap.
This year, the stakes are higher for many of our residents because they simply can’t afford the increased property taxes, which would result if we were to fund the percentage requested by the Board of Education. This year, the Board of Education requested a 12.69% increase, equivalent to a $27.647 million increase to last year’s budget. This would equate to taxpayers paying somewhere between an 8-12% property tax increase citywide.
The Cityside came in virtually flat — with a .75 % budget increase and made concessions to allow for greater funding for the Board of Education. The Mayor’s recommendation to increase the Board of Education’s operating budget by 4% is equivalent to a nearly $9 million increase. This amount would be another historically high investment in our schools. As a mother of two young adults who attended Norwalk Schools, I care deeply about the well-being and development of all children, as do my fellow Council Members. However, we must be mindful of all our residents.
According to the U.S. Census, Norwalk’s current population is over 91,000. Of that, approximately 11,700 children attend our public schools. That represents 8% of our population. However, the current Board of Education’s budget request represents approximately 60% of the overall budget, leaving 40% to fulfill the needs of the other 92% of our residents, including seniors and economically disadvantaged working families. As it stands, many working families are struggling to make ends meet, and most of our seniors are living on a fixed income. They are already experiencing historically high costs for goods and services, including rent and utilities.
The Board of Education’s $27 million increased operating budget request is not tenable for so many of our residents. While I’m not questioning the Board of Education’s intentions to continue to enhance our schools – an unintended consequence of this budget increase would be forcing many people out of our city. Property tax increases also impact renters. Research shows that as property taxes increase, landlords pass on the increase in taxes to tenants through rent increases. We can’t allow property tax increases to cause evictions for homeowners and renters and force families out of our community.
We hear so much about how people value Norwalk’s diversity. Whether that’s racial diversity or income diversity, we have to protect the diversity in our community. We cannot overlook how raising property taxes perpetuates gentrification.
Finally, I believe one of our most significant challenges lies within the budget process. The Common Council and City have no ability to influence, direct, track, review or provide feedback for how the Board of Education decides to spend their funding once the operating budget is finalized. This issue makes it very challenging for Council members to make informed decisions about the budget cap. Each year, we ask for data but don’t receive sufficient information. This continues to be a concern, as the Board of Education consistently asks for increased funding yet doesn’t provide the information about what worked, what didn’t and how they spent their funding.
The City’s budget process is in need of rejiggering, and I hope the Charter Revision Commission will come up with some solutions this year. One thing is for certain, this current budget process is unsustainable. The beloved diversity that so many speak of as the thing that drew them to Norwalk will surely decline into a city of the very wealthy and the very poor if we continue to fund the Board of Education under this broken process. We need transparency. We need systemic changes, and we need them now.