“Budgets are a reflection of our values as a city,” Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons said at a budget meeting on March 9.
There are a lot of values local governments have to balance—education, public safety, infrastructure, parks, roads, trash, recycling, health services, and more. And many residents want to know what their community values and how their tax dollars are being spent on those values and priorities.
Coastal Connecticut Times has extensively broken down each community’s budget to help show where local governments are spending their tax dollars and to help you see where your tax dollars are going.
Local governments spend money in two main ways—operating expenses ( day-to-day costs) and capital expenses (longer term investments, such as school construction). Operating costs are covered with “cash,” while capital expenses are commonly bonded and repaid over a set number of years.
More than $2 billion in local government funding has been allocated for those operating priorities. (Note: We’ll break down capital funding in a separate series.)
There are 10 main areas that municipalities spend their operating budget on: Education, Public Safety, Public Works, Community and Human Services, Economic and Community Development, General Government, Employee Benefits and Pensions, Debt Service, and Other.
If you’re just interested in a specific community, here’s a breakdown of funding by city and town:
Let’s explore each category a little closer.
How we did this: We reviewed each community’s published budget and found the budgeted expenses by department and put them into the categories listed above. Please note: Not every municipality categorizes its budgets the same way. For example, some organize Parks and Recreation funds under Public Works, while others separate it. For consistency, we tried to move and place the similar departments into the same buckets.
More than 50% of all funding across the region—or $1.1 billion—is allocated for education. Education is also the biggest expenditure in each town, ranging from about 38% of Greenwich’s budget to almost 70% of Darien’s.
The education budget covers many areas, including: salaries and benefits for teachers, administrators, and staff; curriculum materials; support services in schools; special programs, such as career pathway programs for high schoolers; and athletic and extracurricular materials.
Some of education highlights from across the region include:
- Providing additional special education supports in services in many communities, including Greenwich, Westport, and Fairfield
- Adding kindergarten paraeducators in Stamford to help support students coming out of the pandemic
- Enhancing social and emotional support for students due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in many districts
Depending on the community, public safety, which includes fire, police, and emergency communications, is the second or third highest budgeted category. Across the region it accounts for about 11% of all spending—or $251+ million. Stamford allocates about 15% of its budget to public safety items, followed by Norwalk at just under 12%, while Darien allocates 7% of its budget to public safety.
The public safety budget covers many areas, including: salaries for police officers, firefighters, administrators, and support staff; equipment, such as body cameras; training programs; emergency communications; and emergency preparedness resources.
Some of the public safety highlights include:
- Completing citywide radio system infrastructure upgrade for emergency responders In Norwalk
- Hiring new part-time fire inspectors in Norwalk and converting a part-time fire inspector to a full-time position in Darien
- A new full-time IT position in the Darien police department to “handle the department’s increasingly specialized technology needs.”
Public Works covers many areas including parks and recreation, engineering, operations, road maintenance, and more. Overall, about 7%—or $157 million—of the region’s budget goes toward public works-related items.
The public works budget covers a variety of areas including: road and sidewalk maintenance; engineering and design work; resources to maintain parks and recreation facilities, as well as infrastructure support; salaries for public works administration and staff; wastewater and stormwater management; and support for trash and recycling.
Many communities have discussed increasing funding for public works projects, including:
- Additional funding for paving programs in Stamford and Fairfield
- Resources to implement “resilient and sustainable” infrastructure projects in Stamford
- Continued studies and work to make storm sewer improvements to mitigate flooding throughout Norwalk
- Implement the street construction plans along Wall Street to improve walkability and driver safety in Norwalk
- Enhancing public parks and amenities to meet increased use in Westport
Community and Human Services
Everything from health departments to libraries, mental health services for the youth and seniors falls into the community and human services category. This category also includes funding that cities give to local nonprofits and agencies to provide some of these services. More than $82 million, or about 3.7% of the region’s budget go toward these services.
Some highlights include:
- Creating a Community Resources Hub with staff and space to serve the public in Norwalk
- Providing more public health information in Spanish to better serve the community in Greenwich
- Making the director of social services and director of the senior center in Fairfield full-time positions to better serve the needs of residents
Economic and Community Development
Cities and towns spend more than $18 million, or just less than 1% of the region’s budget, on economic and community development-related items, which include planning, zoning, and land use departments.
This spending varies widely by community but usually includes application reviews; city-wide plans; zoning and building code enforcement; updates to the zoning regulations; business support; art and history commissions; tourism activities; and salaries for economic and community development staff.
Some economic and community development initiatives include:
- Completing the update of the zoning regulations in Norwalk
- Creating and adopting an affordable housing plan in Norwalk
- Working to implement the newly adopted affordable housing plans in multiple communities, including in Greenwich and Fairfield
Across the region about $78 million or 3.5% goes toward covering the offices of the mayor or first selectperson, finance, town clerk, IT, human resources, legal fees, customer service, and legislative costs.
This funding helps support all of the salaries for employees in those areas; customer support initiatives and programs, such as “click and report” applications; communications to the public; records keeping; licenses, such as marriage and dog licenses; IT support; tax collection; budgets; and agendas and meeting materials.
Some highlights include:
- Additional funding for IT and data security efforts in Stamford
- Upgrading the financial system and “network backbone” in Darien to improve operations
Employee Benefits and Pensions
This is one of the most expensive categories across the board for communities, making up more than 13% or $301 million, of the region’s budgets. Greenwich pays the most, percentage wise, with more than 20% of its budget going to pensions and benefits.
Norwalk’s Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz calls debt service the “link” between a city’s operating budget, which covers more of the day-to-day costs and the capital budget, which covers more investments, such as new school construction.
Debt service, which is the principal and interest a community pays back on its existing debt each year, makes up 7.5% of the region’s budget, or $168 million.
This category includes a little bit of everything, from contingency—funds a city puts toward its emergency fund in case of an unexpected expense—to transfers to other funds, such as sewer funds in Greenwich.
About $25 million, or 1% of the region’s budget goes toward these types of expenses.
Explore the funding breakdown by city and town: