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Tonight, we will set the Budget Spending Cap; We must be mindful of all Residents’ Needs

Common Council Majority Leader Darlene Young (D-District B). (Courtesy photo)

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.

Comments

13 responses to “Tonight, we will set the Budget Spending Cap; We must be mindful of all Residents’ Needs”

  1. Skip Hagerty

    Darlene, well said.

  2. Alma Lyons

    This is a very nicely written article Ms. Young. Thank you for being 100% transparent regarding the budget. While I no longer have children in NPS, I have relatives and friends who do. We must continue to make Norwalk the community that we all love, whether we are natives or transplants. We must continue to provide decent housing for our low and moderate income families. Children shouldn’t have to go to bed and wake up to mice running down the halls in their public housing complex. As a representative for South Norwalk, and a young mother of two, I as that you make a change in that area as well. Start with the families in RC that live in mice infested apartments. Make Norwalk Great Again!

  3. John O’Neill

    Thank you Darlene…I believe some of our elected officials have an understanding of what’s around the corner…
    New Teacher’s Contract and Revaluation this fall. It still baffles me that no one seems to be openly discussing the impact of those 2 items.

  4. Barbara Meyer-Mitchell

    I understand the concern about gentrification and driving residents out of Norwalk due to cost of living. But the reality is that the residents/families who need these school based supports the most are in housing that would represent maybe a $100-200 tax increase this year, about . That represents $8-16 per month. No one will be forced out of Norwalk for $8-12 per month. Meanwhile, the benefits of the programs the school is putting in place could lift their entire next generation out of poverty. But representatives on the council from the two or three wealthiest neighborhoods will use that talking point to keep their own taxes artificially low, saving their constituents thousands and wrapping the whole endeavor in anti-poverty feel good language. Meanwhile families are stuck in the middle on the perpetual hamster wheel of Norwalk’s unhealthy budget cycle. I respect Darlene Young, and support her work with the youth of Norwalk. However, her salary comes from the Mayor’s office, so there is a conflict here. The efficiency study stated that taxes in Norwalk are low compared to similar cities. The efficiency study said the Council and the Board should meet more regularly to discuss the budget and initiatives so the Council had more information and could ask questions earlier in the cycle. How did not one Council member or the Mayor know the increase to contractual costs for the BOE union contracts? How did it come to the 11th hour before someone thought to ask? Follow the recommendations of the efficiency study, and I can go back to living my life in peace.

  5. Barbara Meyer-Mitchell

    Below is a list of percent of municipal budget spent on Education regionally. These numbers are calculated from the audited reports on each municipality’s finance website. Ms. Young’s suggestion that the Education budget should correlate to the percentage of our population who are students is completely out of step with reality.

    Percentage of Municipal Operating Budget spent on Education in FY2022-23
    Norwalk 52%
    Stamford 48%
    Wilton 66%
    Westport 62%
    Weston 79%
    Darien 70%
    New Canaan 61%
    Fairfield 59%
    Danbury 51%
    Bridgeport 42%

    In order to lift our families out of poverty, we must invest in their future.

    Also, since there has been a LOT of conversations about wants and needs, I would like to know why the city is spending millions on the beach parking lot and skate park before completing necessary repairs to school bathrooms which were supposedly funded in the 2021 Capital budget or the computers the NPS IT department says they need. The city picks and chooses which projects move forward and which don’t. Do NOT talk about fiscal caution and then do this kind of stuff. Don’t make me publish a list of these “needs”.

  6. Johnny cardamone

    Rejiggering is a good word! And it’s what needs to happen in our whole city to the powers that be! Or, we will lose a lot more of our people!

  7. Jessica Garnett

    This argument gets more exhausting every year. If you want total control over the BoE budget, then run for the BoE!!! The CC could have asked for 10 public meetings with the BoE to hash out every last question they had. Time to get off of zoom and in a room in front of the public to ask your questions!

    “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”

  8. Jessica Garnett

    “The Cityside came in virtually flat — with a .75 % budget increase”
    That statement is disingenuous at best. If you listen starting at minute 17 you will see how $12 million was removed/drawn down from benefits to fund the city side of the budget. Statements such as these do nothing to increase transparency and further the BoE vs City budget narrative.

    https://youtu.be/NYU03i6TVmo

  9. Bryan Meek

    “ 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. ”

    Amen.

    I dare anyone to read sec 1-289 governing our budgeting process and rationalize it in the 21st century.

    https://ecode360.com/27035277

    Couple that with the disconnected approach to capital spending in Chapter 30.

    https://ecode360.com/27048620

    I know the Charter commission has it’s hands full but I’m hopeful this one or the next reconciles our outdated approach to Finance.

    Otherwise these structural deficits are guaranteed in perpetuity.

    We’ve coasted on cheap debt for the last 20 years, but those days are over and we can not, must not continue to treat these two aspects of our finances in separate vacuums.

    Debt service, which is about $40 million or 10% and climbing rapidly of our spend has a direct and interconnected impact on city Finances both short and long term. The CFOs warnings about debt and NHS and how that promises to cannibalize other areas of need for the next 5 to 10 years are sobering. A quick read is the first 6 pages here…..

    https://www.norwalkct.org/DocumentCenter/View/28986/FY2024-Capital-Budget-CFO-Transmittal?bidId=

    I know my peers and many others seem hell bent on taking this Norwalk High gift horse (which is really the Governor’s end run around school regionalization none of our surrounding towns wanted), but I beg of them to fully realize what this “free” project is really going to cost us.

    I beg of them to actually take a tour through the existing Norwalk High top to bottom and tell me with a straight face that the existing building is not salvageable with the right TLC and smart investments, many of which we have been making for the last 20 years and still paying for. We have several other schools in far worse shape that should be candidates for replacement. Rowayton, Tracey, Fox Run, Concord….these should all be knock down candidates, not NHS.

    Let’s put the brakes on before we go over the cliff.

  10. John O’Neill

    The talking point of only $200-$300 per household increase has been used a few times in the past few years… Breadcrumbs tend to become a loaf of bread after a few years…Teachers expected raise thanks to inflation I’m guessing will be 7-8% maybe…Non commercial residents will be hit hard on revaluation
    Rowayton residents are currently unhappy about expected 6% tax increase this year..Just a prelim for revaluation effects…So, that argument of only $200 tax increase to give BOE what they want is not sellable in my mind

  11. Lisa Henderson

    Darlene, Thank you for your clear and thoughtful summary of the budget process and how it financially affects taxpayers. Some may say that additional funding to the BOE budget is just another $100 or $200 dollars a year but that does not include the already proposed median increase of between $193 – $961 (Rowayton). I find it disingenuous to see the comparison to our wealthier towns in an above post when it suits the writer BUT talking about our poor test scores in comparison to these same town and some are quick to say comparisons don’t matter. The taxpayers of Norwalk, many who are eldery and on fixed incomes, can no longer afford to fund the continued wants and special interests of this BOE and Superintendent. The renters of Norwalk will no longer be able afford the already high rents that are sure to increase when taxes increase.

    Any talk of using the Rainy Day Fund to support the BOE is poor fiscal management. Some of the Common Council members didn’t seem to have a grasp of exactly what the Rainy Day Fund is and how it should or should not be used at the last Council meeting. (Instruction on how to read and understand a budget and what the RDF is and how it should be used should be explained in depth to all Council members who are elected.) Funding the annual city expenses is NEVER an emergency reason to draw down on this Fund. The RDF is like an insurance policy that makes our city creditworthy. Why arent the Council members addressing our increasing debt service through this budget cycle/process? Thankfully, Mr Meek was the only Council member to bring it up and most other Council members didn’t seem to have a clue as to what he was talking about.

    NPS must live within the four (4%) percent increase being allocated to them this year. It’s time for some members of the Common Council to stop blaming past years’ budgets since many of them were council members two years ago when they flat lined the budget (election year.)

    These Council meetings are nothing more than a Dog and Pony Show where parents are encouraged to parade their children in front of the Mayor and Council Members while begging for an education, and NPS employees are encouraged to beg for their jobs.

    Enough of this already. Council members must take a stand to protect the taxpayers and residents from being forced out of this city.

  12. Bryan Meek

    @JO. It clearly demonstrates the lack of financial knowledge.

    A $200 increase at 4% average interest rates is a $5000 perpetuity.

    That’s how these “fractions” need to be looked at.

    It’s a simple a concept as compound interest.

  13. Sarah LeMieux

    Without any disrespect meant, or intention of coming across as pedantic, 11,700 students is 12.8% of 91,000, so 12.8% of Norwalkers are current students in NPS. I think an equally important number is that according to U.S. Census Data, Norwalk consists of 35,569 households. That means roughly 1/3 households in Norwalk has an active stake in our public schools. There are lots of different ways to contextualize these numbers when you are deciding how best to steward the resources of our community, but many Norwalkers feel, as I do, that we made an investment in our schools, and many Norwalkers want to preserve that value.

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