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What Should the Planning and Zoning Commission’s Role Be in the Capital Budget Process?

Members of the Norwalk Planning and Zoning Commission

Years ago, when there were separate Planning and Zoning Commissions in the city, the Planning Commission would spend hours discussing and debating the proposed capital budget and forwarding their recommendations to the Finance Department and the Common Council. Often, however, their recommendations were ignored.

Now that the commissions have been combined, their role has been reduced to examining whether or not a project complies with Norwalk’s Plan of Conservation and Development. 

“It simply is not our role to opine about any of the numbers in the capital budget,” Chair Lou Schulman said. “We have absolutely no role regarding that. Our only role is to look at the items and determine whether they meet the requirements of the POCD.”

Schulman noted, however, that because the POCD is so broad, almost every project listed in the capital budget met those requirements. 

Diane Lauricella, the only resident to speak at the hearing, asked the commission if they could at least include notes advocating for a project. Schulman said that wasn’t part of their charge. 

“I can’t frankly help agreeing with Ms. Lauricella that I think the role we play ought to be altered—whether it’s completely eliminated or improved in some way that makes this a more meaningful review to both the members of the commission and to the public,” he said. 

Commissioner Tammy Langalis, who was a member of the Planning Commission when it was a separate entity, said that while the prior capital budget meetings were long and drawn out, the panel was able to give concrete recommendations about what should and should not be funded. 

“The Planning Commission did actually change things and set priorities and we were able to say, ‘OK, we think this in one department is more important than that,’” she said. “Because of the presentation from the department heads and the feedback that we did receive from the public, it lasted quite a number of evenings.”

Langalis noted that often the recommendations weren’t followed, but it did “give the city a guide.”

“We sat over at city hall in a small room with the pieces of paper all around the wall writing in what we thought we should put in and take out, and then, in the end, the Finance Department kind of went ahead and did their own thing,” she said. “So it was a little bit frustrating, but it gave them a little bit of a guide—we don’t have that ability anymore.”

Steve Kleppin, the city’s director of Planning and Zoning, echoed her frustrations, which is why the process was changed.

“I think I’ve been kicking around some ideas on how to make the process a little more worthwhile for everybody,” he said. “The old process was, in my opinion, a disaster. I just thought it was really bad. At the end of the day, it was like three evenings, six hours each, and everybody pretty much ignored the Planning Commission’s request. So I thought that was just not a good use of time.”

But he said that the new process could also use some improvements.

“I do think there is a value especially for the commission, who’s really tasked with doing long-range planning to see what all these departments are looking at for capital items, not only just the immediate needs and requests, but also what we’re thinking five years out.”

Kleppin said that while he didn’t think “preparing a separate capital budget is the way to go,” he would look to work on some language to add to the city’s ordinance to enhance the commission’s role.

Current Capital Budget

The city’s proposed capital budget was not posted online ahead of the meeting; nor was it  included with the agenda, something Lauricella specifically noted. According to a calendar on the city’s website, Mayor Harry Rilling will review and transmit an official recommended capital budget to the Board of Estimate and Taxation on or before Tuesday, March 19. 

Langalis, who chaired the subcommittee related to the capital budget, said that each city department came in and presented their proposed projects to the subcommittee in January

The commission did vote, stating that almost all of the items departments had asked for met the requirements of the POCD. The few exceptions included: 

  • A request from the Fire Department to purchase two vehicles that were not hybrid or electric. Commissioners noted that the POCD calls for replacing “city vehicles incrementally with electric or hybrid vehicles.”
  • Requests from the Economic and Community Development Department for funding for city events. Commissioners thought those should be operating expenses. 
  • A request from the Arts Commission for murals on Wilson Avenue, which the commission also thought could be part of operating expenses.

Comments

One response to “What Should the Planning and Zoning Commission’s Role Be in the Capital Budget Process?”

  1. Bruce Kimmel

    Some interesting issues. In general, I agree that over the years the role of Planning in the Capital Budget process has been somewhat confusing. Much of the problem had to do with the lack of specificity in our previous POCDs. While I am not sure how to increase the involvement of Planning in the process, a few points should be noted:

    As a member of the Common Council, I often attended the public hearings of the Commission on the capital budget and, like my colleagues, found them informative. However, members of the Council were dealing with many of these capital projects year round and had a wealth of information about what was going on; for instance, what funds were already available in various capital accounts, how our debt service would be impacted by this or that project, or safety issues in areas adjacent to city-owned buildings. There may have been good reasons for us to disagree (not “ignore”) the decisions of Planning.

    It is important to note that Council decisions about the capital budget were limited (not only by our level of debt service, which directly impacted our AAA credit rating) but by the limit on capital spending set by the Board of Estimate and Taxation. Also, if I remember correctly, if the Mayor disagreed on a decision by Planning, he or she was required to publicly explain in writing the rationale supporting the decision. I am not sure this always happened.

    As indicated, I’m not sure how Planning should proceed. But I will say, the Council (and the BOE) sometimes spent a couple of years discussing projects before they even became an official capital request. All types of issues were addressed, architectural renderings, square foot costs, lines of site, remedial costs, etc. I don’t think it would be worthwhile, or even possible, for Planning to do detailed reviews of multi-million projects that took years to develop.

    What was going on in past years was that Planning was not making recommendations based on the POCD at all. Instead, it was making decisions based on the costs of the projects. That was clearly beyond its purview.

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