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To the Editor:
Last week, as required by the Norwalk Charter, the Common Council set a limit on total expenditures for the 2013-14 fiscal year at $294,879,967. Unfortunately, the limit will require a property tax increase of 3.97 percent, which means the median property tax in the city’s fourth taxing district will rise by $254.83. A tax increase of nearly 4 percent, considering the sluggish economy, was difficult for Council members to digest, let alone support, but we had been backed into a corner by the sustained downturn.
For the last four years, property taxes in Norwalk have increased on average a modest 1.97 percent as the City tried to maintain a balance between the needs of its departments, particularly the Board of Education, and the needs of taxpayers. But this year, with revenue essentially flat, the grand list showing only a small uptick, and with pension and other benefit costs increasing between 15-20 percent, we had no choice: If we were going to properly fund our schools and maintain basic services, we had to increase property taxes more than usual.
It is important to note that the Common Council will again have a chance to address the spending cap in April, and that the Board of Estimate and Taxation, after discussing the various department requests yet again, will not set the final tax rates until early May. Also, the City still does not have precise figures on the amount of state aid it will receive.
This last point is crucial in relation to the school budget. The BOE and the City (please excuse the conceptual distinction between our schools and the City), are less than $1 million apart; hopefully, with some level of state aid, and a little juggling of funds by the BET, the BOE budget will be close to fully funded by the summer. It’s been a long time since the City and the BOE were so close this early in the process.
Budget details aside, there are some positive developments in the budget process this time around. The first is the more productive collaboration between the finance departments of the BOE and the City. The BOE, after last year’s budgetary catastrophe, upgraded its financial personnel and procedures drastically; and, as a result, was able to provide more comprehensive and more accurate, as well as easier to understand, material than in previous years.
Also of significance is the constructive give-and-take between Council members and the BOE. The verbal jousting and accusations that characterized previous budget discussions have been absent. And high ranking BOE staff members, such as principals, as well as union officials, have not been attending meeting after meeting doing little more than publicly reprimanding their bosses and public officials in sometimes crude language.
Another positive development – and one that is a breath of fresh air in light of what’s been happening in the nation’s capital – was the bipartisanship demonstrated by a number of Council members. The cap resolution was supported by five Republicans, three Democrats, and one unaffiliated member. One Republican decided to vote no because he did not agree with the tax increase, and four Democrats voted no apparently because they thought the BOE should be fully funded immediately without regard of other factors, such as state aid.
(I used “apparently” in the previous sentence because the nay saying Democrats did not speak during the debate, but media coverage the next day seemed to indicate they had wanted an even higher tax increase in order to “fully fund” the BOE. Two of them later complained that they had been shut out of the process, notwithstanding the fact that they had received the very same material everyone else had received, could have attended the very same meetings, and could have asked all the questions they wanted.)
The day of the Council meeting, I received several emails from parents worried that the Council was going to slash school programs, especially the “common core” curriculum. At the Council meeting, a number of residents spoke passionately of the need to fully fund the BOE budget and not to cut funds for the new curriculum. We were perplexed by this concern since both the operating and capital budgets contain sufficient amounts of the funds in question, and it had been made clear at various meetings that nobody wanted to cut these funds.
I later learned that an email had gone out that morning urging residents to attend the Council meeting to prevent draconian cuts in education. Seems some folks are having trouble adjusting to the new non-adversarial relationship between the BOE and the City.
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