Correction, 2:11 p.m.: Daisy Franklin is on the Fair Housing Commission, not the Fair Rent Commission.
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling outlined promises kept Thursday, in opening what he said would be a “beehive of activity,” his 2017 campaign headquarters in SoNo.
“We put together a team that has accomplished so much because we work together. We don’t fight, we reach across the aisle. We communicate, we talk and we’re transparent, and we make sure we get things done,” Rilling said to about 40 of his fellow Democrats, touching on his 2013 promise of civility in government, after lauding the city’s financial stability and progress in education.
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story
Rilling has three opponents challenging him for reelection to a third two-year term – Republican Andy Conroy, a former Common Council member; State Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140), chairman of District B Democrats; and Lisa Brinton Thomson.
The mayor, who at last count had more than $100,000 in his campaign war chest, cautioned Dems not “to feel so comfortable that we don’t get out to vote.”
“One of the biggest things we have to do is get out the vote. I hear people all over saying you don’t have to worry,” Rilling said. “If people don’t come out to vote, I have to worry, we have to worry.”
Among those attending were District B Democrats Daisy Franklin and Brad Schmidt.
“I support the mayor,” Franklin said, commenting that if Morris became mayor, Norwalkers would lose him in his role as a member of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.
Even if a new state representative became a member of the caucus, he or she would have to start at the bottom and build relationships, she said.
Rilling said that his opponents will say there is nothing good about Norwalk and nothing is happening, but the public knows better.
Everywhere he goes people tell him how thrilled they are with what’s happening in Norwalk, he said.
The state is in a budgetary crisis but Norwalk has been financially stable, Rilling said, touting the continued Triple A bond rating and comments made by rating agencies about Norwalk’s strong fiscal management.
“When I took office in 2013, we had lost $1 billion in our grand list,” Rilling said. “Over the past 3.5 years, we have grown the grand list by one third of that amount – $400 million more in our grand list now then when I took office in 2013.”
“Over the last three years, the average mill rate increase – and I know, it doesn’t often say a lot – the average mill rate increase was 1 percent, where in the previous three years under my predecessor, the average mill rate increase was 2.5 percent,” Rilling said.
Regarding his 2013 promise to support education, Rilling pointed out the plan to build a new school in South Norwalk and to add onto Ponus Ridge Middle School, lauding Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski and the Board of Education for a one-third decline in the achievement gap and adding that the schools were funded with $8 million more for 2017-18 than they were in 2016-17.
Not only are new schools on the books, but there are renovations planned at 14 schools, with electrical upgrades high on the list, he said, adding that there’s also a collaborative effort with Rowayton parents to create a model cafeteria, like a café.
Returning to the state budget situation, Rilling said Norwalk’s funding may be cut by up to $5 million.
“We are going to have to draw down on our Rainy Day Fund and it’s a good thing that we didn’t do it before because now we have the money to do it,” Rilling said. “We are going to do what we need to do so our children will have a world class education.”
Serious crime has been down in Norwalk every single year, Rilling said, commenting that there are more police officers on the street and more community outreach.
Norwalk citizens know they can call City Hall now, Rilling said, before moving on to the Walk Bridge issue.
“We’ve had meeting after meeting after meeting with the Walk Bridge people, the Connecticut Department of Transportation… hopefully to mitigate the impact on our community, on our business,” Rilling said. “We’re meeting with the business people in South Norwalk, in East Norwalk and the residents, to make sure that they are our ears and eyes, to let us know what we need to do, to make sure that they are going to be able to navigate through the city, our businesses are going to be able to stay open. We are putting together a coalition of people that will be our ears and eyes.”
Thomson has criticized city leadership for not having a plan, a vision for the city. Rilling mentioned the effort to create a new Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), describing it as an unprecedented outreach to find out what Norwalkers want.
“We can’t be shortsighted, we have to have a vision,” Rilling said, mentioning that a parking study is underway and a Redevelopment Agency study of the urban core with the aim of making Norwalk a walkable, vibrant city.
Rilling said the city would aggressively pursue a Wall Street train station and talked of keeping people out of their cars, an effort supported by the formalization of the Bike/Walk Task Force he created as a new mayor.
“I am not going to stand here and take credit for all the good that has happened in Norwalk because no person can do everything but every person can do something,” Rilling said.
“I think he’s done a good job,” Schmidt said. “You know, everybody has their shortcomings, their downfalls, but I think he’s working on them.”
Shortcomings include affordable housing, he said.
“I think he’s looking for, trying to please everyone which is very hard to do,” Schmidt said. “What he’s done so far .. I approve of. Mostly I approve of. We have talked about it. I like that I can sit down and talk to him.”
Another shortcoming is the “dispute” on the Board of Education, “where a new school should go,” Schmidt said.
“Things like that but as I said there are compromises and you just need other people’s input,” he said.
“I am seeing some stuff that the mayor is doing – I think he’s a pretty good mayor,” Franklin said. “There’s things he could work on but there’s a lot of people working. Somebody is doing their job, why would you take them out? I think he is doing his job.”
Franklin is a Fair Housing Commissioner; there’s work being done on “35/65,” housing for people who make between $35,000 and $60,000 a year, she said.
“I know it’s a process,” she said. “…I think he is doing his job. … He is not doing it by himself, he has the Councilmen working. You can’t have a good Council if you don’t have a good mayor.”
“I look around, I see a lot of good stuff happening. I see him bringing in businesses, just along this block. I see the stores coming in and staying,” Franklin said. “…He does try to listen.”