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Norwalk Expects Tax Hike With Next Budget

NORWALK, Conn. – The Norwalk Museum would close, a Norwalk nonprofit group would not get the grant it is accustomed to, and your property taxes would go up about 3.8 percent under a city budget recommended this week by the Norwalk Finance Department.

Thomas Hamilton, Norwalk's director of finance, recommended a city budget of nearly $300 million Monday night at the Board of Estimate and Taxation meeting. It includes a 3.9 percent expenditure increase. That includes 3.5 percent more for education, substantially less than the 6.9 percent increase requested by the Board of Education – which Hamilton said is "simply unaffordable" for Norwalk's taxpayers.

There would be a 3.3 percent increase for city expenses and a 27 percent increase for pension contributions. There is no funding for additional police officers. Staffing at the library and the fire department would decrease by one person each, positions that were paid for by grants that are no longer available.

The city would contract out its garbage collection, a savings of $360,000. Hamilton said no employees would be laid off, however; they would be shifted into existing positions that are vacant.

Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now, a nonprofit social services agency that has been under fire after a federal audit that found about $400,000 meant for the Head Start program had been misused, would not get the administrative grant the city customarily awards. The city would therefore spend $1.3 million less on grants.

Fred Wilms, chairman of the BET, said that was appropriate. Wilms was on the Ad Hoc Grants committee that recently questioned NEON representatives on the problems with the grants. "I have very strong feelings of disappointment at the answers or non-answers that we received," Wilms said. "I came away feeling very, very sad."

Closing the Norwalk Museum and eliminating the curator position would save the city $216,395. Hamilton said 1,500 people a year visit the museum, and the lease on the building is up in June, making it a good time to close it. The items in the museum would go into storage. Wilms suggested that perhaps the Lockwood-Matthews Mansion Museum would be interested in exhibiting some of it.

Major problems for the city include the increasing costs of health insurance and pension contributions.

Hamilton said Norwalk lost "roughly 28 percent of the value of the pension funds" in 2008, although, "Our pension funds are still much better funded than the state of Connecticut pension funds and much better funded than most municipal funds."

Because of a "smoothing technique," the losses are spread out over a period of years. Norwalk would spend $1.5 million on pension contributions.

Health insurance would cost $1.7 million, a 21 percent increase. The cost per member is 34 percent above the CIGNA municipal norm, reflecting the impact of retirees.

Board members said employees need to pay more of the insurance costs and pension contributions. James Haselkamp, the city's personnel director, said contracts can be renegotiated. But it would take a long time to see results, he said, as "the people that are close to retirement are not the people they are willing to sell off."

Wilms referred to the '80s video game Pac-Man, in reference to the problem. "It's basically eating up services that government is supposed to provide, we end up paying for this and cutting things that people expect on a day-to-day basis," he said, of the employee expenses that are mandated by contracts and the city charter.

Assumptions made in the budget include a $12.8 billion grand list, an increase of 0.3 percent, declining back tax collections and penalties and a tax collection rate of 98.2 percent, down from 98.5 percent. State aid is expected to remain flat.

The next step is a public hearing on the city's spending cap at the Feb. 23 meeting of the Finance Committee. That will be followed by the Feb. 28 Common Council meeting, where the cap will be set. On April 10, the council may adjust the cap, and on May 7, the BET will set the final budget and tax rates.

Hamilton said the median tax increase for a fourth district property owner would be $6,208, an increase of $229 or 3.8 percent.

Correction made, 11 a.m.

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