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Norwalk Schools Resolution Fails in Committee

NORWALK, Conn. – A resolution that might have helped Norwalk's Board of Education with a staggering deficit died at the committee level Thursday night.

Three Democratic Common Councilmen had crafted the resolution urging the city to give the BOE four years to repay the $4 million needed to cover a budget shortfall.

Tuesday night, the council voted to send the resolution to the finance committee for further study, prompting Councilman Matt Miklave to say that it would never come back. Thursday night, after hours of discussion about the shortfall and possible ways to address the problem, the finance committee voted shortly before midnight not to send it back to the council.

"You killed the resolution," Miklave said. "That's what we said."

Councilmen yelled angrily at each other following the meeting. Republican Doug Hempstead (R-At Large), while heading out the door, said the Democrats had given people false hope.

Council Democrats expressed frustration that they, as elected officials, have no say in major decisions such as the issue of the night or whether Calf Pasture Beach Road should be altered temporarily, because those decisions rest in the hands of appointed boards. The resolution to give the BOE four years to repay the $4 million, which was sponsored by Warren Peña (D-At Large), David Watts (D-District A) and John Igneri (D-District E) was non-binding, as financial decisions are made by the Board of Estimate and Taxation, appointed by Mayor Richard Moccia, a Republican, in accordance with Norwalk's charter.

The political theater in the packed council chambers followed a lengthy dissertation by Elio Longo, chief operating officer for Norwalk's schools, about the history of the school's expenditures dating back to 2007, a timeline that showed dwindling numbers.

Miklave asked if an audit would have caught the discrepancies that Longo was pointing out. Both Longo and Finance Director Thomas Hamilton said no.

Councilmen dug further into the reasons for the problems, and then Bruce Kimmel, a former Board of Education member, jokingly said it hadn't happened on his watch and wondered how the problem had been missed. "When you're dealing with a budget of $150 million, can you have every line at zero? No," Longo said.

After about two hours the committee listened to Committee Chairman Fred Wilms, a Republican, explain how the Board of Estimate and Taxation had come to its approach to the "extraordinarily unprecedented" $4 million shortfall. A special appropriation – a withdrawal from the Rainy Day Fund – was not appropriate, he said.

"The city of Norwalk is not the federal government; we can't print money," he said, prompting one member of the dwindling audience to groan loudly.

Watts and Peña pressed for using the fund. Peña said he had talked to people who work at rating agencies and was told that a withdrawal would not cost the city its Triple A rating if it were done correctly. He wondered if the city could find out how much it could use.

"You'll never get that number, they are not that transparent," Hamilton said. "They hold the cards close to the vest." He added that unforeseen matters that could affect tax collections, such as layoffs from Norwalk companies, made the number difficult to determine.

Just past 11 p.m., Watts asked Hamilton who was in charge of the city. "Did the mayor give you any direction in the last 24 hours? Because I think you two guys (Wilms and Hamilton) are running the city," he said. "I'd like to point out the mayor is not here."

Moccia is attending a U.S. Conference of Mayors convention in Orlando.

Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) suggested at 11:25 p.m. that the committee not vote on the resolution, leaving it for another meeting. Miklave made a motion to amend the resolution to recommend a $1.8 million special appropriation, which Peña had been advocating, due to time constraints – the BOE must finalize its budget by June 30.

"I don't think pushing along a resolution just because its 11:37 is the right thing to do," said David McCarthy (R-District E). Committee Chairman and Common Council President Carvin Hilliard (D-District B) agreed with McCarthy, although he had said Tuesday that he would support a $1.8 million appropriation. The audience of about 25 people groaned.

A motion to table the resolution failed by a 3-2 vote. Then Hempstead, McCarthy and Hilliard voted against sending the resolution back to the council, killing the measure.

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