NORWALK, Conn – Near the end of the Common Council's recent budget debate, when it was apparent a compromise had been reached between a majority of the Democrats and Republicans, something strange happened - strange indeed, and something I had never experienced, and hope never to experience again, during my 12-plus years as an elected official in Norwalk.
As the long and interesting debate wound down, it was obvious that six of the eight Democrats on the council and six of the seven Republicans agreed on an operating budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year that would raise property taxes by about 2.8 percent for Norwalk homeowners in the fourth taxing district, which is the standard used by the city.
Suddenly, one of the two Democrats who had pushed hard for a budget that would have increased property taxes 5 percent took the floor and denounced the six other Democrats, repeatedly calling them "liars" for supporting the lower increase. He assumed we had all promised to support major increases in school funding during last fall's campaign; thus, by his reckoning, we were liars.
After the debate, I checked what I had promised in the election. I used a single leaflet throughout the campaign. The first bullet point said I would use my "experience as a former member of both the Common Council and the BOE to craft operating and capital budgets that balance the needs of our city with the needs of taxpayers." And that's exactly what I tried to do.
Actually, as I stated during the debate, my first choice was for the spending increase recommended by the finance director. That proposal would have raised taxes 3.8 percent, which would result in a median increase of $232 in the Fourth Taxing District. But it would have increased school funding by 3.5 percent (and city funding by 3.3 percent).
The majority of the Democrats could not possibly support the resolution to increase property taxes by 5 percent - in order to provide the BOE additional money - because it would have resulted in an increase of $307. We could not justify such an increase during these difficult economic times.
The council needed to find some middle ground, and the 2.8 percent increase offered by the majority of Democrats, which would raise property taxes about $170, was also acceptable to the Republicans. Thus, it passed by a 12-3 vote, with one Republican arguing that the economic times dictated an increase in taxes of no more than 2 percent.
During the discussion, after it was apparent the 2.8 percent proposal would pass, a few Council members employed an old fashioned have-their-cake-and-eat-it-too strategy. They boldly announced that, if the Board of Estimate did not "fully" fund the Board of Education request, they would vote to raise the spending limit in April. They clearly implied that the BET could do this without raising property taxes, notwithstanding the fact that to do so would require roughly an additional $7.5 million in funds.
I consider those statements political slights-of-hand because the projected scenario could not possibly happen. First of all, the BET would never raid the city's undesignated fund balance (rainy day fund) to raise the funds; nor would it back a reduction in funding for retiree health-care costs. There are no other ways to raise funds without raising taxes.
The other reason this scenario would never see the light of day is that it would require a two-thirds vote by the council. I know the Republicans would not support it; nor do I believe enough Democrats would back it. (I could not support messing with our future health-care obligations, but I might support dipping into our undesignated fund balance, depending on a variety of statistical factors, but never to the tune of $7.5 million.)
During the public participation portion of the council meeting, a large number of people called on the council to support the superintendent's budget proposal or the Board of Education's modified proposal. We could not support either because the former would have raised property taxes by about $400 and the latter by about $356.
Another, less important reason we could not support "full funding" of the Board of Education was because we could not get a handle on what that actually meant. One member of the Board of Education who spoke at the meeting said they were hoping to reduce health=care costs by about a million; another said they were searching for ways to reduce special education costs. The council was being asked to support a number that was always changing.
Council members worked hard to craft a reasonable and balanced budget. We passionately debated and ultimately found common ground. Why one council member would disrespect our differences and impugn our personal integrity in full public view – and without a factual basis – raises serious questions that need to be examined to ensure it does not happen again.
I now have a deeper appreciation of the urgency to improve the quality of discourse in public affairs.
- Common Councilman Bruce Kimmel, District D