Speakers back funds for Newfield rehab, special ed programs
STAMFORD - Each year this time, the members of two powerful elected boards - one that makes the laws and one that controls the money - invite taxpayers to speak about the budget the mayor proposes for the coming fiscal year.
Few taxpayers take them up on it.
Such was the case Thursday night, when most of the seats in the auditorium at Cloonan Middle School were empty, even as the stage was full of elected officials from the Board of Representatives and Board of Finance.
It was true even though Mayor David Martin’s $603 million budget proposal for 2019-20 includes a tax hike of 4.4 percent. Martin himself has said he is unhappy about the increase.
But few speakers, each of whom was given three minutes at the podium, addressed the coming tax hike before the elected officials who now are combing through Martin’s budget looking for things to trim.
Among the 21 who spoke, most advocated for a cause.
Six parents, for example, urged board members to allocate money the mayor budgeted to fix Newfield Elementary School. Five other parents asked that board members not cut the special education budget. Four residents of Waterside said they want board members to support road and sidewalk repairs. Two residents made a case for preserving money Martin set aside for work that would help the city comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The greatest number of comments came from parents with children at Newfield School, where administrators in October closed six modular classrooms that were “temporarily” installed about 25 years ago. The modulars leaked water, spurring mold growth, and were so full of holes that birds and mice nested in them. Now workrooms and other spaces are doubling as classrooms, and parents want board members to approve money to build an expansion.
“There are kids learning in closets now,” parent Glenn Harper said. “You guys need to step up to the plate.”
Parent Jonathan Lucas said the mother of one his daughter’s third-grade classmates once studied in the “temporary” classrooms.
“This is an issue of neglect,” Lucas said. “Now is the time to act.”
Newfield is “a special school,” parent Lisa Kotasek said, but that doesn’t include the building.
“The mayor came and saw what the kids have to deal with,” Kotasek said. “We need permanent construction.”
When parents post on social-media platforms that their children are approaching school age and they want to know whether they “should move to New Canaan,” Kotasek said, “we need to be able to tell them, ‘No, stay in Stamford.’”
Parents of special education students were the next-largest group to speak. Nicole Raucher applauded a Board of Education effort to save money by creating more in-district programs, such as one at Rippowam Middle School, where one of her children is a student.
If not for the new programs, her child “would have been out-placed,” Raucher said. “It’s fantastic to have all three children in the same school system. I support the special education budget.”
So does Paola Becerra, who brought her first-grader, Abigail, and lifted her to the microphone to say hello to board members.
“I wanted you to see my daughter and how the school programs have helped her, so you can see that the money is not being wasted. She is out of physical therapy. Her speech is so much improved. She is doing much better than kids who don’t have these programs,” Becerra said of Abigail, who was born with Down syndrome. “I am here for all kids with special needs.”
Waterside residents said money must be spent on crumbling streets and sidewalks because traffic from expanded office parks is increasing in their neighborhood along the Greenwich border.
Some street surfaces have disintegrated, Lineene Krasnow said.
“I’m one of those old-fashioned people who sweeps the street in front of my house,” Krasnow said. “Last weekend I swept up four bags of gravel.”
People know when they’ve crossed into Stamford from Greenwich because “Stamford roads look like Beirut in the 1980s,” said Jon Alsonas, a resident of Top Gallant Road.
That street forms a complex intersection with Southfield Avenue, Davenport Drive and Gatehouse Road that has become a choke point, resident Paul Adelberg said.
“It can take 35 or 40 minutes to get downtown because you have to go through there,” Adelberg said. “There is a huge amount of traffic from the office parks.”
Richard Thomas asked for help for Southfield Park, where his children grew up and his grandchildren now play. The parking lot is a collection of potholes, he said.
“It could be the most neglected park in the city,” Thomas said. “I understand money is set aside for it. I hope you will not cut it.”
Frank Mercede and Phillip Magalnick urged board members to leave intact money budgeted to improve handicapped access in municipal buildings. Mercede lauded the city for spending $250,000 this fiscal year to install a wheelchair beach mat on the sand at Cummings Park, renovate seating and bathrooms at Terry Conners Ice Rink and refit doors at the Stamford Government Center.
“There are still so many things that need to be addressed,” Mercede said.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 29 years ago but compliance has dragged, said Magalnick, who is legally blind and struggles to navigate sidewalks that do not have the required curb cuts.
“If the city put signs along the road that said, ‘No blacks,’ or ‘No Jews,’ or ‘No Muslims,’ all hell would break loose,” Magalnick said. But by failing to follow ADA codes for walkways, “you are saying to the disabled person, ‘You are not welcome,’” he said.
Two residents broached the pending tax hike. Layne Rodney, who lives in the High Ridge area, said there are government inefficiencies, particularly with road repairs, and “we can do better.”
“Do (taxpayers) work for the bureaucracy, or does the bureaucracy work for us?” Rodney asked.
Cove resident Kathryn Barrios challenged Martin’s plan to hire 19 new people.
“I live in a modest-income area, in a modest home … on a fixed income, and I feel like I am being driven out of Stamford,” Barrios said.
After a property revaluation, her taxes last year increased 9.3 percent, and, with Martin’s proposal, could rise another 4.4 percent July 1, she said.
“I don’t live off this hypothetical increase in the value of my house,” she said. “I live off my income. The mayor needs to learn to live within a reasonable budget.”