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To the Editor,
The two issues that dominated Norwalk's 2006 budget debate – flooding and education – are likely to become major topics during the next budget debate. I hope we don't repeat what happened six years ago when residents worried about flooding questioned the level of school funding in the city. Even worse, most school officials, elected and appointed, seemed oblivious to the personal adversity caused by the flooding.
I recall a 2006 meeting of the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations during which all types of data were presented comparing educational spending and test scores in Norwalk to other towns and cities. Despite a few denials, it was obvious that the intent of the data was to suggest we were spending too much on education, considering our test scores and what other towns were spending.
The other major issue on the agenda that night was flooding, and how it was affecting the lives of more than a few folks across the city. As I listened to their experiences, it occurred to me that this division between different sectors of the community was a consequence of the infamous state Educational Cost Sharing formula, which severely underfunds Norwalk.
Fortunately, in 2006 we came up with funds to address flooding, but only partially. At least one street on the current Department of Public Works list has had problems for decades. In 1990, my wife and I did not bid on a house on Burlington Court, off Newtown Avenue, because it was obvious the backyard had been flooded on numerous occasions. That street is still on the list.
Because of the ECS formula, every year we are boxed into a corner and forced to make difficult decisions that inevitably juxtapose the needs of our schools with the needs of almost everything else. And because most municipal revenue comes from property taxes, divvying up the revenue usually becomes a zero sum game. Peter's gain is thus Paul's loss.
Last winter's first budget debate, that is, the debate that took place in February before the Board of Education uncovered a $4 million deficit in its insurance and special education accounts, is a good example of how Norwalk is forced to make awful choices because of the formula:
On the one hand, the city bent over backwards, in my opinion, to ensure a certain level of funding for our schools. But on the other hand, the DPW took a major hit and still does not have enough maintenance crews to efficiently and promptly address issues such as flooding, which has again become a major issue in various parts of the city.
It started in the Concert Hall, when the Common Council, after a long and sometimes heated discussion, rejected the recommendation from the finance director and the mayor to increase property taxes for the 2012-1013 fiscal year by 3.8 percent. Instead, we adopted an increase of 2.8 percent, about $2.5 million less than the recommendation.
At the time, most council members, me included, assumed the $2.5 million reduction would be absorbed equally between the BOE and the city. Past experience provided good reason to make such an assumption: During the 1990s, primarily because of the ECS formula, the council and the Board of Estimate and Taxation were repeatedly forced to hold spending flat for most departments in order to provide small increases in educational spending.
After years of short-changing the city-side of the ledger, it became nearly impossible for departments to mobilize the personnel necessary to quickly perform standard maintenance to alleviate or solve local problems. Last February, when voting for the 2.8 percent increase – which was a compromise between Democrats and Republicans – I did not believe we would again go down that road.
But we did. And considering the overarching importance of education, it was probably the correct decision. The BET reduced the BOE allocation by $725,000, which exactly matched the amount of additional state aid it had received soon after the February vote. The remainder of the $2.5 million reduction came from the city-side, with DPW being hit the hardest.
A few weeks ago, I listened to residents describe how flooding has changed their lives. I also heard the DPW director wish he had more maintenance workers to address some of these problems. A few days ago, I listened to a resident describe how schools are suffering because of budget cuts. While all budget decisions require choices, the choices we have to make would be easier if not for that stupid formula.