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Norwalk’s mayor to blame

Rubble sits on the formerly tax-producing Norwalk property at I-95 and West Avenue, in this file photo.

Rubble sits on the Norwalk property at I-95 and West Avenue, which as been vacant for years in spite of plans for a mixed-use development. (File photo.)

By Democratic mayoral hopeful Andy Garfunkel

As reported recently in a local news article, “Norwalk’s Grand List grew at a scant rate of 0.08 percent last year, which will offer no relief to taxpayers hoping the city could avoid a property tax increase as a result of the recommended 2013-14 spending plan.” The city’s Grand List was $12.91 billion in 2012, up just less than $11 million from $12.9 billion the previous year. With an increase of less than 1 percent, the Grand List has not grown enough to offset the 3.97 percent tax increase set for the next fiscal year.

It’s the mayor’s job, as our chief elected official, to work to improve the city, not just in the months leading up to an election, but every single day. If Norwalk’s mayor had been doing this, he wouldn’t be left questioning how we will adequately fund our schools, or bemoaning the lack of growth in Norwalk’s Grand List and shrinking state aid.

In 2012, four of the top five highest taxpayers in the City of Norwalk were corporate or office developments located on Connecticut Avenue and Main Avenue, with combined real estate tax payments of over $385 million. On top of that, tenants in these buildings pay significant personal property taxes on equipment and they also bring high wage, professional jobs to our community. On the other hand, big box stores (like the Lowe’s now slated for construction on Connecticut Avenue) pay much less in taxes, bring low wage jobs and generate traffic that makes Connecticut Avenue a mess. That’s not smart growth.

Look at our main competitor to the south. Stamford aggressively courts new businesses and employers. It strengthens its commercial tax base and revitalizes its downtown, while here in Norwalk our ‘leadership’ muddles along, claiming victory when there finally a sign of movement on a long-stalled project like Waypointe, or an existing business like Pepperidge Farm grows. Holding onto your existing base is the bare minimum. How is it that a Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s leading hedge funds, leaves Westport, leapfrogging right over Norwalk to build its new corporate headquarters in Stamford?

Now as a testimony to our city’s economic development failure, the prime developable site in Norwalk, the 95/7 Project on West Avenue, remains vacant. Not only did the city clear the block and lose the tax revenue from businesses and homes that had been located on the site, but there it sat, and sat, and continues to sit. In the meantime, the construction workers who would be building the project haven’t benefited, the project isn’t generating the tax revenue it should have been by now, and this eyesore of a site is at one of the main gateways to our community. We can do better.

If our city government had been run smarter and more effectively over the last seven years, we wouldn’t be in this boat. Nobody else is going to solve our problems for us. The state is in its own fiscal crisis. Norwalk needs to get its fiscal house in order through a coordinated, sustained and effective program of economic development. To make that happen, we need active leadership that considers economic development a top priority.

I certainly do.

Andy Garfunkel

Former town clerk

16 comments

oldtimer March 5, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Truer words were never written, Andy. Moccia is going to be so upset you pointed out the facts. In his reply, under some minion’s name, he will explain it is NOT his fault and you are wrong. He will explain it was all beyond his control and never admit he should have had assured financing before selecting a develpor.

jlightfield March 5, 2013 at 4:35 pm

While an appeal to smarter government always has a certain appeal to me, there are a number of assertions made above that are simply incorrect.

The City did not clear the land at 95/7, the property owner did. Whatever you may think of the tactic, the fact is that demolition permits are granted without the strings that bind property owners to maintaining the level of tax should they not develop the site. That is legislation that should be pursued by the Common Council, but alas, has not.

Sure, many things could be done to help 95/7 move along. A focus on how to alleviate the constraints placed by what is required in order to get development financing would help. One issue; the minimum parking requirements placed by zoning is something that should be removed. It can be done if, and only if, the City can demonstrate that it has a parking plan that would provide for parking along the urban corridor as part of a municipal asset strategy. This level of conversation does not happen either in zoning or the parking authority.

Another issue would be to submit significant infrastructure improvements through bonding that would develop capacity for hook ups to the sewer system, electrical grid and ultimately fiber. Right now, the connection fees to our system are out of line with competing cities.

Instead we get various political leaders, boards and commissions who seem more preoccupied with timing the market with a lose understanding of commercial and residential demand instead of a focus on what legislative policy actually impedes development.

95/7 does in fact pay property taxes, land is part of the assessment value of those taxes, and does not diminish just because the property is vacant. The development rights associated with the parcels inflate the value, although not as much as if a building were there.

The urban corridor is ripe for a healthy discussion about what Norwalk can and should look like in 25 years, but we aren’t going to get there if the discussion keeps focusing on the rearview mirror and confusing politics with policy.

Bryan Meek March 6, 2013 at 6:24 am

Perhaps overdue and still WIP, but the city does have a parking plan. It was reviewed by NPA in CY2012 and discussed at length in the January 2013 meeting.

http://www.norwalkct.org/Archive.aspx?AMID=123

It is good to have plans, but they have to be realistic and something that you can possibly execute. Otherwise it is just hot air.

LWitherspoon March 6, 2013 at 9:04 am

@Jackie
Thank you for your usual thoughtful commentary. It is nice when comments add factual statements to the conversation, as opposed to simply shouting “Amen” to anything that hurls mud at one’s political enemies and accusing any who might dare disagree with you of being “minions”.
Interesting idea regarding a Common Council resolution that requires the same level of taxation after demolition if redevelopment does not take pace. This seems like common sense and I have to ask why it doesn’t exist already. Could it be that developers believe financing is easier to secure after the site has been cleared, so they do the demolition with their own funds in hopes of securing financing later on more competitive terms?
It’s nice to see Andy Garfunkel talking about economic development, but it would be even better if he told us what he would do differently. I read the above letter twice looking for Andy’s plan for economic development and the only thing I see is that he thinks City government should be run “smarter and more effectively” with “active leadership that considers economic development a top priority.” Of course that sounds good, but it means little without specifics.

Adam Blank March 6, 2013 at 1:29 pm

A few thoughts. The Common Council does not have the authority to pass an ordinance changing the taxing rates or manner of valuing property. That is done exclusively by state statute and implemented by the tax assessor.

Parking and other infrastruture improvements mentioned by Jackie are costly. I agree it would likely spur development if parking requirements and costs imposed upon developers were lessened. However, let’s be frank with eachother, those costs would be shifted to taxpayers instead of the developer. If development booms then parking fees and increases in the grand list likely offset those initial costs to taxpayers. If development lags, taxpayers foot the bill.

Parking costs and other complicated issues facing the City seem to me to be best solved through initiative of the mayor (whether it be a Dem or Rep.) working collaboratively with department heads and the relevant commissions/boards/council. Until then we are left with piecmeal attempts at partial solutions.

Joanne Romano March 6, 2013 at 6:17 pm

There’s a novel idea…”working collaboratively with department heads/mayor etc. Perhaps more information and background is needed prior to sending out negative points …I understand its election season folks but here’s a thought and something I’ve always done…stop slinging mud and concentrate on a positive campaign…negativity breeds negativity, and promises made can come back to bite you in the buttocks as Forest Gump would say… no matter who the candidates are you must be truthful and open to the constituents and stop all the trash talk…voters don’t want to hear it…they want how you are going to represent them going forward, they already know what has happened, what they want to understand is what can/will happen should they choose to vote for you. Can we please see some civility here?

jlightfield March 6, 2013 at 8:24 pm

@Adam Blank I’m not sure why you think there’s no enabling legislation regarding valuations and tax assessements, but there is, CGS §12-63 starts and there’s a whole section on neighborhood revitalization.

@Bryan Meek, the city does not have a parking plan, it has a work in progress parking study which does not address what my main policy point continues to be: you can’t have a parking authority seeking revenue for municipal lots while at the same time have a zoning policy that requires on-site parking that is privately owned.

Joe Espo March 7, 2013 at 1:48 am

Andy: you’re not the one to run the City smarter because you’re not smart enough. I say that because you just don’t have the skills to do even the most rudimentary analysis of the problem with 95/7. So if you can’t analyze, let’s memorize. Repeat after me: the developers can’t get the banks to lend them money! Say it again two more times! Got it now? Now say this three times: The Mayor is not a bank! Then ask yourself why can’t the developers get the money? Because (repeat 3x)we’re in a recession!! And why are we in this dilemma in 2013 when this project has been in the works for a decade? Well, that’s because your democrat compatriots that were on the council years ago, lead by Mr. Miklave, delayed this project during the easy-money years and let the project slide into the 2008 banking collapse when NO money was available. Specifically at fault is Mr. Miklave, one of your primary opponents. So if you want to play it smart, play to the primary; tear him down for the negligent role he played in all of this. Tell your primary voters why they should pick you as the next candidate vs. Miklave, Mangi and Rilling. That would be the SMART step to take, no?

EDR March 7, 2013 at 7:48 am

I have to say that I was a little taken aback my Mr. Garfunkel’s letter about who is to blame about the state of the grand list in our city. As an industry professional I wonder if he actually understands urban land economics or is he just relying on consultants to make things up for him as he campaigns.

His comments give meaning to the phrase that figures don’t lie but liars figure. Before he revises the development history of Norwalk we should revisit who actually held political power locally 10 years ago- his party. NorwalK had every opportunity to take advantage of the last great commercial real estate development cycle. The owner / developers of these urban redevlopments spent millions of dollars on predevelopment costs and had their plans ready to go. Reed Putnam-95/7 actually got started with the construction of two very nice mixed use developments. Instead of building on the momentum those in political power did everything they could to hold back the new development through needless debate.

Time has now passed and we are just getting through the biggest real estate downturn in 70 years. Now Mr Garfunkel is looking for a photo opportunity to blame someone else!

Stamford has taken advantage of its closer in location to NYC and its transportation hub. It also does not hurt that the Governor is its former Mayor. Stamford remade itself because folks in local government got out of the way to let the private sector get things done.

Good or bad the south end of Stamford is exciting. 95/7 and other local scaled developemnts had no chance to succeed because his party debated things endlessly and ruined any chance of new development when it was supposed to happen.

By the way there is new construction going on in town other than big box stores. Just drive around and you will notice that Peppridge Farm and Avalon have both been busy and other projects are about to start. Of course Mr. Garfunkel would not get that because he is to busy complaining.

Why do we want to elect him Mayor? There are far more qualified and capable people of understanding how new commercial development happens- even in his own party!

Dave McCarthy March 7, 2013 at 9:59 am

Jackie Lightfield…I just spent some time going forward from CGS §12-63. I see where a legislative body can defer taxes on improvements made in a designated redev zone, which I believe has already been put in place. If you see something I don’t, let me know.

Other than that, I agree with Adam, we (very specifically and appropriately) cannot mess with the mechanism of valuation.

As far as the original piece, I don’t appreciate this form of spin criticism.

Tim T March 7, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Victor Cavallo
Strange as the only signs of life I and the rest of Norwalk see are the holes that have become muddy with the rain. The article you reference means ZERO as the only things that matters is when buildings are finished and filled with tax paying companies and individuals.. We have been hearing the lies from the Moccia administration about redevelopment for way to long and no one with an ounce of sense is buying it any longer. Hey but nice try at spin but you failed.

your daddy March 8, 2013 at 8:33 am

Over the last few years major new commercial and residential developments in Stamford have continued to move forward and come online … but in Norwalk we accept the “bad economy” excuse?

Tim T March 8, 2013 at 3:15 pm

your daddy
EXCELLENT POINT
It seems in Norwalk we allow one excuse after the next from this administration as that is how they survive. They depend upon the ignorance of the Norwalk taxpayer.

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