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Rilling just says ‘no’ to big box stores, tackles budget question

Norwalk Democratic mayoral forum SNCC 082713 011

Former Norwalk Police Chief Harry Rilling said the “primary should educate voters about how we will govern differently and better than the current administration.”

NORWALK, Conn. – There are times when trying to nail down the position of someone running for office is like trying to herd cats. They duck, equivocate and sidestep issues with the finesse of a champion boxer slipping a jab.

Some issues, though, bring a quick and definite response

So how does Norwalk Democratic mayoral candidate Harry Rilling feel about siting a BJ’s Wholesale Club on North Main Avenue?

“I am against having a BJ’s on Main Avenue,” he said in a recent email interview. “Big box stores create low-paying jobs (many part time in order to avoid paying benefits or overtime), they do not pay much in taxes to the city, and they create congestion on our roads. Main Avenue is particularly problematic as it is a very narrow road that is already congested and dangerous.”

But what of the developer’s traffic study that claims the store will actually improve traffic flow?

“The assertion by the developer’s traffic expert that opening a BJ’s will actually ‘improve’ traffic flow on Main Avenue is ridiculous,” the former police chief said. “Traffic will be diverted to side streets causing problems in the surrounding neighborhoods. As an alternative, we need to aggressively pursue developers interested in mixed use development or add more Class A office space in the Merritt 7 / Diageo complex.”

The inquiry about BJ’s and big box development was included in a list of questions submitted to all four Democrats running for mayor in the Sept. 10 primary. The primary’s winner gets to take on four-term Republican incumbent Richard Moccia in the Nov. 5 general election.

Answers from candidates Andy Garfunkel and Vinny Mangiacopra appear elsewhere on this site. Matt Miklave’s responses will appear later this week.

Another issue that recently cropped up revolves around board and committee appointments. NanccyOnNorwalk asked the candidates, “When you are mayor, will you actively seek out people with relevant expertise for board openings, or do you believe it is a good idea to appoint the average citizen?”

Rilling responded, as did Garfunkel and Mangiacopra, that a mix of volunteers is needed.

“I will seek people from all walks of life. It is important to have people with various degrees of expertise sitting on boards and commissions, but it is also important to encourage our citizen stakeholders to be involved as well.”

Rilling took it a step further, pointing out the need to make the boards and committees look more like the city population.

“It is also my intention to have our boards and commissions represent the demographic makeup of our city,” he said. “I will seek out board and commission members from all ethnic groups in order to accomplish that. For example, there is no African-American resident currently sitting on the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency even though the decisions of that agency have a major impact on the SoNo area. I will also seek to increase the number of Latinos and women on boards and commissions. All citizens need to have a voice in the running of our government as they are the community stakeholders.”

One question that has come up regularly in our comments section is “What would the candidates have cut from this year’s city budget, and why won’t they be specific?” We asked the candidates to name three things they would have cut, but got no specific answers. Rilling said there is a good reason for that.

“The budget process in Norwalk and other cities is very convoluted. The key to innovative budget decisions that actually reduce costs and improved services is to begin work at the start of the budget process rather than just addressing a few dangling items at the end of the process,” he said.

Having spent 17 years as Norwalk’s police chief, Rilling has an insider’s view of that process, but retired before this year’s budget was crafted.

“Not being involved in the process from beginning to end makes it a bit difficult to analyze,” he said. “Department heads present their requests to the finance director and his staff. Without hearing the department head justifications for any requests, it is difficult to say what should or could be cut.”

Rilling did make a few observations about areas that might have been target for reduction.

“In reviewing the 2013-2014 approved budget, I notice there are several significant increases in wages for various employees,” he said. “… The vast majority of any budget is dedicated to salary and benefits. Some exempt (non-union) employees received pay increases of 4.2 to 9.5 percent and higher, while bargaining unit employees received 0 and 1.5 percent increases in some cases. While this was attributed to ‘multi-year settlements,’ those numbers are still very high. I would have therefore negotiated lower increases for some employees and no increases for others.”

And he wouldn’t stop there, he said.

“There are also positions that are earning salaries far in excess of their worth. Some of those positions could possibly be eliminated or consolidated,” he said.

Being more specific is problematical for anyone not in on the budget sessions, he said, because the city website does not detail a line-by-line analysis of the budget.

“In any event, we must focus on growing the grand list to increase our tax base and remove the undue burden now being faced by our homeowners,” he said.

Rilling offered some other cost-cutting ideas he said he would investigate if he is elected.

“One of the fiscal areas where many improvements could be made is the approach known as ‘shared services’ with other municipalities,” he said. “We already do joint purchasing of items like gasoline and heating oil with other municipalities through the South Western Regional Planning Agency. We purchase prescription drugs for our employees’ health benefits as part of a purchasing cooperative Norwalk helped establish in 2004-05 with other municipal health plans to gain the benefit of economies of scale. There are many similar types of items we should be exploring as part of this shared service budget-wise approach, and there are new state grants available to Norwalk for such initiatives.”

Rilling has indicated in the past that he views Norwalk Economic Opportunities Now (NEON) as a valuable resource for the city that must be helped to right its foundering ship. The agency has been involved in scandals big and small regarding leadership and allegations of financial improprieties, and is currently undergoing a Department of Social Services audit. The agency is already under orders to pay back the federal government for misused grants.

A story broke recently that the Norwalk Housing Authority is making a bid to take over the Head Start program that has been run by NEON. NoN asked Rilling about that.

“Norwalk is in desperate need of both a Head Start program and a universal pre-K program, as both provide opportunities for early intervention in the lives of our children,” he said. “I have not reviewed the competing applications, but generally I would favor trying to repair and upgrade the quality of NEON’s Head Start before awarding a contract to a new coalition. While competition and change are valuable, Norwalk’s low-income families are not necessarily served by this kind of competition.”

Rilling suggested that the entire NEON situation could have been handled better. Moccia cut city funding for the agency when the financial problems were uncovered while Joe Mann was still the president and CEO. Mann has since been removed and a new Board of Directors put in place.

“If I had been mayor, I would have used my appointments and other influence with the NEON board much earlier than the current administration,” Rilling said. “I would have tried to integrate into Head Start the positive education expertise of the Housing Authority, Stepping Stones and the Child Development at Norwalk Community College to enrich and improve the Head Start program.”

Last winter, as candidates were coming forward to pursue the Democratic nomination to run for mayor, Democratic Town Committee Chairwoman Amanda Brown urged her party to be supportive and focus on unseating the incumbent instead of focusing on tearing each other down. Later, she acknowledged that it was obvious it would be a tough primary. And while the candidates have mostly confined their criticisms to more general points, their proxies and supporters have focused on attempting to knock down the opposition.

Nancy on Norwalk addressed the issue: “There’s always a danger when there’s a primary election of the candidates damaging each other in their bid for nomination. There have been reports of negative campaigning, like a robocall poll, and there have been a number of barbs between the candidates and their supporters. Are you concerned about winning the battle and losing the November war?”

Rilling said that, yes, that is a concern.

“This is a major concern of mine as it should be for every Democrat in Norwalk. The four-way primary for mayor is unprecedented, but all the candidates have the right to run and the voters should make the ultimate decision about which candidate deserves to represent and lead the Democratic ticket in the November election.

“But let’s not lose sight of the ultimate goal,” he said. “Our primary should educate voters about how we will govern differently and better than the current administration and avoid attacks on each other’s integrity. It is always unfortunate when candidates from the same party criticize others rather than staying on topic and explaining their respective platforms.”

He said he has heard “from many members of the public they are tired of and offended by negativism in the political arena.”

“I always say there are two ways to have the tallest building in town; you can tear everyone else’s building down, or you can build the tallest building,” Rilling said. “My campaign has opted to build the tallest building. I invite other candidates to join me in that regard.”

Asked if, should he not be the winner Sept. 10, he would support whoever is the party’s candidate, Rilling did not hesitate.

“Yes,” he said. “Based on their positions, platforms and statements, I feel comfortable making a commitment to support the Democratic candidate who wins the primary election, and invite the other candidates to make the same commitment.”

12 comments

EDR August 28, 2013 at 7:49 am

Mr. Rilling’s view of so called box stores is interesting. First since he is still a sitting member of the zoning commission so I would suggest that he either immediately recuse himself from the BJ’s hearing or resign all together because he has naively created an appeal for the developer by his comments. He broke a cardinal rule about discussing publicly a pending zoning hearing. Second, while he is entitled to his opinion about development locally I would suggest that he take a crash course on urban land economics so he better understand how market decisions are made with respect to both supply and demand for commercial and residential real estate. Perhaps once he does that he can have an intelligent debate about real development opportunities. It is easy to complain from a talking points memo it’s another thing to actually know what you are talking about. .

Al Raymond August 28, 2013 at 9:16 am

First let me say that site has been one of Norwalk`s eye sores for many years. Second everyone complained when the state wanted to build the Rt 7 connector saying that it would take away all the traffic and adversely affect our business now your saying no because too much traffic,noise, light, but if they found another place then that would be okay. Let me ask just what would everyone like to see there? I think it`s a great place for BJ`s, there is already plenty of traffic,noise,pollution on the other side of town I think we should have a balance don`t you? All the things your complaining about for BJ I did the same about Lowe`s but that project got pushed through so I say spread the development all over the city not just on one side.

Vic C August 28, 2013 at 9:26 am

Mr. Rilling has recused himself from the BJ’s hearing long ago. Remember he is a candidate for Mayor so he has to answer these questions. If he does not, people like you will say “why is he avoiding the question”. In any event, speaking of supply and demand, BJ’s does not have many options when it comes to opening a store in lower Fairfield County. Why doesn’t Norwalk make BJ’s jump through some hoops rather than give the store away so to speak. If they want to open a store in Norwalk they should find an area that is suitable. The site they are planning on is not. Just look at what a little Dunkin Donuts did to that area of Main Ave. and imagine what a BJ’s will do.

Vic C August 28, 2013 at 9:34 am

Wow Mr. Raymond. So your approach in life is if you make a bad decision, don’t learn from it, spread it around?

M Allen August 28, 2013 at 10:05 am

“Big box stores create low-paying jobs (many part time in order to avoid paying benefits or overtime)”
.
Is the creation of low-paying jobs worse than no jobs being created? Especialy given that these are unskilled jobs.
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ObamaCare, and yes, I know it is the Affordable Care Act, will result in more part time jobs being created at the loss of full time jobs. I’ll bet most people against a Big Box Store of any kind, not just because of traffic, are almost certainly in favor of a healthcare bill that will result in more and more full-time jobs being replaced by part-time jobs and healthcare benefits for all workers either being cut or driven up in price.
.
So while its cute to say BJ’s will create only low-paying jobs, there are a lot of things that are helping to create those. At least BJ’s is creating a job to begin with.

Joe Espo August 28, 2013 at 10:34 am

It’s not the job of a zoning commissioner to comment on the merits of a pending application in public. That goes for ALL commissioners.
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It’s not the job of a zoning commissioner to determine the merits of a pending application based upon anything other than the zoning regs. There’s nothing in the zoning regs that authorizes a commissioner to deny an application based upon employee pay scales.
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It should not be the job of a mayor to chase jobs or development out of Norwalk. If this is Rilling’s attitude he is eminently unqualified to be mayor.

rburnett August 28, 2013 at 4:08 pm

Joe Espo: You should learn to read the answers more thoroughly. Rilling did not suggest chasing jobs out of Norwalk. He in fact is suggesting bringing in more jobs that pay better wages and benefits. That being what he refers to as “mixed Use Development”. Not only will those developments bring jobs to the trades, they will create retail space for which the owners will need to hire workers. That is anything but chasing jobs away. And if you go back into the poll archives of the Hour, you will find the overwheming majority of people participating did not want more big box stores as they have had enough.

EDR August 28, 2013 at 6:34 pm

Mixed use development is code that people use to describe what they think will bring high paying jobs and higher personal and property taxes but have no idea what it is or entails. While Merritt 7 is a great testimony to a bygone era it represents a bygone era. Do you think there will be new offices space built in Norwalk anytime soon or Industrial? In fact mixed use today is retail and Multifamily residential. The last time I drove around town that was happening in droves. As I said earlier folks like Mr. Rilling need to take a crash course on urban land economics before they comment on things they know nothing about. Of course it sounds good and it is the silly season.

Mark Chapman August 28, 2013 at 7:13 pm

@EDR

Just a point of information: Rilling had already recused himself from taking part in BJ’s deliberations and decisions on advice of Corporation Counsel after writing an op-ed piece making public his feelings. Click here to see the story.

Tim T August 28, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Headlines should read
Norwalk just says ‘no’ to Rilling
To those that are saying that retail brings only low paying part time jobs you are simply incorrect. Retail does bring some entry level jobs however keep in mind that some people are only qualified to do this type of work. Would you rather see them unemployed?? What type of jobs does a vacant lot bring? Also retail brings in good paying jobs many members of management in retail make 6 figure, so please stop with the false statements about the type of jobs retail creates. CANT WAIT FOR OPENING DAY.

Tim T August 28, 2013 at 8:41 pm

EDR
Rilling is from a bygone era. He was a disaster as police consultant and would be a disaster as mayor. I have listed Rillings negative points many time . I however have yet to see any specifics from the Rilling political operatives of his positive points.

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NancyOnNorwwalk.com was conceived as the place to go for Norwalk residents to get the real, unvarnished story about what is going on in and around their city. NancyOnNorwalk does not intend to be a print newspaper online; rather, it exists to pull the curtain back and shine a spotlight on how Norwalk is run and what is happening regarding issues that have an impact on taxpayers’ pocketbooks and safety. As an independent site, NancyOnNorwalk’s first and only allegiance is to the reader.

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Nancy came to Norwalk in September 2010 and, after reporting on Norwalk for two years for another company, resigned to begin Nancy On Norwalk so she engage in journalism the way it was meant to be done. She is married to career journalist Mark Chapman, has a son, Eric (the artist and web designer who built this website), and two cats – a middle-aged lady and a young hottie who are learning how to peacefully co-exist.