Watts’ accounting of Maritime Aquarium’s financial health doesn’t add up

NORWALK, Conn. – Figures presented Tuesday by Councilman David Watts (D-District A) to damn the Maritime Aquarium are only partially correct.

Watts, Councilwoman Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B) and Councilwoman Sharon Stewart (D-At Large) attempted at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting to insert a requirement into a proposed lease with the Maritime Aquarium that the facility provide a summer program for Norwalk youth, which they said would cost around $10,000.

Watts and Bowman referred to the Aquarium’s revenue, saying the program’s cost was not much in comparison. All three protested that the Maritime Aquarium is hosting a program for 120 Bridgeport children and there is nothing lined up for Norwalk youth, in spite of their requests two weeks earlier at the last Council meeting.

Watts implied that the Maritime Aquarium had about $1 million as a surplus at the close of its 2013 fiscal year. Figures provided by the Aquarium show the surplus was $32,068.

The Aquarium announced on Oct. 21 that it had received a $10,000 grant from Dominion Resources to present after-school programs for girls in Grades 4-8 at Beardsley, Park City Magnet and John Winthrop schools in Bridgeport. This was one week after Watts pressed to insert a summer camp for Norwalk youth into the lease, at the previous Council meeting.

At Tuesday’s Council meeting, Watts said, “I think whoever the powers that be who negotiated this lease could have sat down with the Aquarium and said, ‘Hey, you basically did this press conference after the last Council meeting for $10,000 to bring 120 kids from Bridgeport and now you are asking the city to give you a lease for a long time and you’re not willing to put anything on the table and that’s a shame.’”

Watts directed fellow Council members to look at the Aquarium’s 2013 financial report. The Aquarium took in $4.5 million in revenue from admissions and spent $3.5 million in administrative costs, he said, “leaving them a million for operating costs or anything else. I don’t know many non-profits with a $3.5 million administrative operating budget, but it seems pretty high to me. They list all the other areas where they get their money from and they list all their expenses. A give-back to the community is the right thing to do and it should have been done when we put this lease together. They’re asking us for something and we’re asking them for do something and that’s not holding them hostage because they are asking us to give them something for free.”

The new lease calls for $1 rent, but the Aquarium must take over the costs for building maintenance and repairs, costs currently borne by the city. City officials have said the maintenance costs on the old building are significant.

Bowman said the Aquarium should offer the summer camp for the Norwalk children, free first Saturdays for Norwalk residents most of the year and free passes at the library.

“We learned that they bring in about $4 million in revenue, so I think a couple hundred thousand dollars giving back to the city that, you know, paid $30 million for the building, and is poised to give them rent for a dollar, I think it’s worth it to invest in our youth,” Bowman said.

The Maritime Aquarium posts its annual report on its website. That includes a one-page financial report on page 14.

Revenue from admissions for fiscal year 2013 is listed as $4,571,652. Administrative expenses are $3,519,414.

However, revenue from all sources totals $11,093,084. The total of expenses is $11,061,016. The difference is $32,068 (see financial report below).

Stewart did not mention the financial information.

“I just find that it’s very strange that given all the opportunities and the amount of leeway that the city has given the Maritime Aquarium that they would go and partner with the city of Bridgeport with the same program that we introduced to them. I don’t understand that at all,” Stewart said.

Maritime Aquarium publicist Dave Sigworth explained the origins of the Bridgeport program in an email:

“We are always seeking grant funding to support our educational programming … in Norwalk and beyond the city limits. Dominion is very interested in being a strong hometown presence in Bridgeport. They put out a call for grant applications for programs that would benefit Bridgeport … and only Bridgeport. So we put in an application for a grant to fund a ‘Girls in Science’ after-school program (which you mentioned in your article today). The grant application was submitted April 25, and we learned on July 6 that we received the full $10,000 for the program.  (We only put out the press release recently because it takes a while to finish paperwork and then find a date when everyone can get together.  The actual program with the Bridgeport students hasn’t started yet.)

“The Bridgeport program will be one of many grant-funded educational programs that we perform throughout Fairfield County.”

Asked to explain how the Maritime Aquarium gives back to Norwalk, Sigworth wrote:

“I’ll repeat the examples I wrote on your website earlier this month about how heavily we support Norwalk schools: all Norwalk schoolchildren visiting on field trips receive free Aquarium admission. A private grant supports science programs for Norwalk 4th- and 6th-graders, reaching more than 1,600 students. Sixteen Norwalk schools took advantage of our educational programs last year, many with privately funded subsidies. Our education department partners with Brookside, Jefferson Magnet and All Saints schools, where every kid has multiple experiences in science. Private grants let us support visits by Carver Center kids and to present an inspiring weekly after-school program exclusively for the city’s high school students.  (This high-school program, by the way, called Tempest, is the largest single grant by far for our educational programming: $150,000 from Newman’s Own Foundation.)”

Annual Report 2013_green


16 responses to “Watts’ accounting of Maritime Aquarium’s financial health doesn’t add up”

  1. John Hamlin

    If the City Council members want $10,000 spent on youth programs, they should make the proposal to allocate money for that purpose and set up the program. It’s always a better idea to try to spend money over which you have control rather than trying to dictate how other people should spend theirs.

  2. anon

    Doesn’t Watts owe back taxes to Norwalk? Maybe he can pay his taxes and ask that they be used to fund programs at the Maritime Aquarium.

  3. EastNorwalkChick

    “Hey, you basically did this press conference after the last Council meeting for $10,000 to bring 120 kids from Bridgeport..”

    I’ve a feeling Mr. Watts either didn’t read the press release or didn’t comprehend that this program was to be held in Bridgeport or that it was being paid for by a grant. Like with the financials, I’m betting that it’s the latter….

  4. John Levin

    Is ANYONE embarrassed by this article?

  5. Oldtimer

    Mr Watts idea for another Norwalk based program is a good one, but, like the one in Bridgeport, needs a sponsor. Mr Watts would do well to find a, local sponsor, or maybe a few. The Aquarium is getting by, but has just assumed the expense of maintaining the building and that will not be cheap.

  6. Stephanie

    Once again, Mr.Watts disregards the facts and makes false implications, just to grab some headlines. Others follow his lead because they don’t know what’s going on.

  7. Bruce Kimmel

    It should be stressed that the Council was dealing with a lease, which we approved. We did not feel it was appropriate to hold the lease hostage until certain program demands were met. That type of discussion should have happened at a meeting of the Authority. Unfortunately, the program proposal sidetracked the discussion away from the biggest issue in the lease: whether the Aquarium would be able to fund its capital demands, which the city had been funding, in the future. The core of the building is about 100 years old; it costs a fortunate to maintain tanks, etc.

  8. Kathleen Montgomery

    Exactly Stephanie. And then everyone gets sidetracked by people who are unprepared and/or lack factual knowledge. Enough already.

  9. John Hamlin

    It’s unfortunate that we can’t have an “at large” election to prevent certain Council members from holding office in the city ever again.

  10. mollyB

    Only in Norwalk would a group of council members be maligned for supporting a summer youth program Harry Rilling didn’t support the idea and would not ask the BET for the money. Secondly, Watts did ask a private source for the money and is currently a waiting for a response.

    The common council voted up or down to authorize the mayor to enter into an agreement without any other amendments.

    The reporter didn’t ask for any on the record comments because the facts would undercut a juicy story and prove Harry Rilling didn’t support the summer camp. I don’t agree with David Watts on a lot but a broken clock is right two times a day.

    Rilling, BET and Councilman Kimmel could support almost $300,000 in police OT but $10,000 for youth program take a hike.

    Watch the council meeting on TV.

  11. Bill

    Does Watts read or is his mouth open too long for him to hear the facts?

  12. Casey Smith

    ‘Rilling, BET and Councilman Kimmel could support almost $300,000 in police OT but $10,000 for youth program take a hike.”

    So, Molly, are you advocating that the police overtime be reduced, which would affect stuff like dirt jobs or the larger special events -Oyster Festival, cancer runs, the boat show, etc., for summer programs for South Norwalk children? Or are you asking for reduced police force which would actually increase the overtime amount?

    Mr. Watts’ proposed program is not the only summer program in town. Other organizations already have summer programs. “It’s for the children” argument doesn’t fly well for this.

  13. Scott

    Since when do dirt jobs cost the city anything. Isn’t the expense covered by the contractor and then some?

  14. mollyB

    @Casey Smith,

    I think dirt jobs and/or special events are paid by the contractor. Mayor Rilling, BET found almost $300,000 to pay police overtime cost but, $10,000 to help some urban kids learn about fish…get lost. You could challenge Mr. Watts on a lot of past questionable behavior but this idea was a good one.

    Mayor Rilling, BET, and others didn’t support the summer camp idea because they don’t like the guy who authored the idea. Period!

    The City of Norwalk gives corporate welfare to the aquarium, 300 k in police overtime pay but helping a few inner-city kids… no thanks.

    Only in Norwalk.

  15. srb1228

    Sad that the Maritime Center is being used as a political pawn by Watt. I don’t get why he’s so down on them, much less two other fellow council people. No one at the Aquarium is getting rich, they rely heavily on volunteers to help and they provide enormous amounts of outreach as well as providing all kinds of positive dividends to the community. Watt and the other are grandstanding. If he wants a program for less advantaged children, get the sponsor. It sounds like the Aquarium will do everything possible to facilitate it.

  16. Tecdaddy

    How embarrassing […] Watts is with […] Faye. […] I am curious on Watts’s experience with nonprofits that qualifies him to compare the Maritime operating budget to other non profits.

    Watts is a modern day ambulance chaser in the world of politics. LOOK out Al Sharpton there is a clown is town. He is even using your words pleading Jim Crow in council meetings.

    Editor’s note: It was Ms. Bowman who made the Jim Crow reference. This comment was edited to conform with our policy.

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