NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk's property taxes are going up. And if Common Council President Carvin Hilliard has his way, they will go up even more than the city of Norwalk has recommended.
The Common Council's Finance Committee was unable to reach a consensus on a recommended budget cap Thursday night at a special meeting at Concert Hall. That left it to Hilliard, the committee's chairman, to make a resolution on the matter. Hilliard said he would do it in the morning.
Asked what that meant, Hilliard, who was on his way out the door, said, "I will propose an increase, a number. As you can gather from the exchange we had, I'm pro-education. I think that's a great equalizer. Kids, poor kids, that's a great equalizer in our society. I'm not for a rich city like Norwalk taking savings out on education."
Pressed for a number, Hilliard, a Democrat, said he would recommend a property tax increase of about 5.5 percent. "I may go 5.5; I don't know, 6."
Thomas Hamilton, the city's finance director, recommended a 3.8 percent increase, under guidance from Mayor Richard Moccia. That proposed budget for 2012-13 included a 3.5 percent increase in the amount of money spent on education. That is substantially less than the 6.9 percent increase requested by the Board of Education, which Hamilton said is "simply unaffordable" for Norwalk's taxpayers.
It also included closing the Norwalk Museum and privatizing the city's garbage collection.
Thursday night's meeting began with more than an hour of public comment. Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2405 spoke against the plan to privatize garbage collection and 10 people spoke against closing the Norwalk Museum.
The union members, who work for the Department of Public Works, said privatizing the garbage collection would not save the city money, as Hamilton, DPW Director Hal Alvord and Moccia say it will.
"We have seen our trees division and Christmas tree pickups get contracted out to privateers only to realize that it should have stayed in house because it became apparent that it was cheaper," said Hector DeJesus. "I have also seen the water treatment plant get privatized only to see taxes go up."
Eric Chandler, a member of the historical commission, said it would be "penny-wise, pound foolish and short-sighted" to close the museum or move it to another location. "The museum is in its most effective location where it is now," he said.
Republican council member Nick Kydes jumped off the stage to become a public speaker. "You know I'm a financial conservative," he said. "I'm very keen on keeping the taxes low. ... But I have been moved by the discussion we have heard on the Norwalk Museum." He said he supported keeping the museum open as it "houses the soul of the community in which it lies."
The impassioned pleas had an impact. After most members of the audience left, council members looked for ways to save the museum. "It's a big issue with a small amount of money, and we could probably save it," said Democrat Bruce Kimmel, who isn't a member of the committee and who could not cast a vote.
Numbers were bandied about, as Hilliard and Democrat Matt Miklave wondered how much various percentage hikes would cost citizens.
Tempers flared late in the meeting when Republican Doug Hempstead suggested that Democratic members go to the Capitol and petition Gov. Dannel Malloy to send more money to Norwalk for education. Democrat David Watts countered that the Republican house leader lives in Norwalk and hadn't done anything to change the formula.
Hempstead finally made a motion to raise property taxes by 1.9 percent. The three Republicans on the committee voted for it, but the four Democrats voted against it.
Miklave made a motion to increase taxes 3.8 percent, the city's recommendation, even though he was against it.
No one voted for it.
"We've got 1.9 percent, 3.8 percent, 6 percent," said freshman Democrat Warren Pena. "We have to find a happy medium." He made a motion for 2.8 percent. That failed as well.
After a recess, Hilliard said he was ending the meeting and making a recommendation in the morning. Hempstead protested. "It has to go in tomorrow morning. I think as a committee man I deserve to know what's going in."
"If the committee is deferring to the chair to submit it we still need some numbers to put in," Hamilton said.
"I've been on the council, I know," Hilliard said. "I don't have to do that tonight. You can call me tomorrow."
Hilliard had said during the meeting, "We have to educate our kids, we have to prepare them for the best ... I think we have to make the tough choice to spend the money and fully educate our kids. That's a fundamental thing that governments do."
He predicts the council, which has a Democratic majority, will vote for the higher cap.
"I think people will wake up," he said. "I think the Democrats will go for it."
Pena said by email that he disagrees. He made the motion for a 2.8 percent increase "because I believe that we will end up somewhere in that range and that it's a fair number relative to what came out of discussion in the meeting. I would love to give the BOE everything but also need to be sensitive to the increase in taxes and the ordinary taxpayer."