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An open letter about City planning and revenue

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Lisa Brinton, a former mayoral candidate, recently said it’s too soon to say if she’s running for Mayor in 2019. 

Dear Mr. Mayor, BET and Planning Commissioners,

As individuals with responsibility for the overall fiscal health and planning of the city, surely you’re alarmed at the tsunami trend line of expenses coming taxpayers’ way in the face of stagnating revenues? The state and grand list are in trouble.  Raising property taxes and drawing on the Rainy Day Fund seem to be our future.  You’ll raise my taxes this July, next July and every one after that, until like many others, I’m forced to choose between accepting the status quo or moving out of Norwalk.

 

Last November, the Mayor claimed unprecedented growth, pointing to his mall, 5000 new apartments with mixed use development, not to mention the $1 billion ‘movable’ Walk Bridge.  Add to that, six taxpayer funded studies professing Norwalk’s moving forward that include the:

 

  • Innovation Places strategic plan
  • Center Neighborhood Plan for the Wall Street-West Avenue Redevelopment Area
  • Parking Authority parking study
  • Plan of Conservation and Development
  • Hodge Economic Development Plan
  • East Norwalk TOD study

Are these studies just smoke and mirrors?  They appear to be since spot zoning changes for developers have routinely superseded any and all plans for the city.  I want development, but last year our grand list grew at a paltry 0.05 percent, despite larger increases in neighboring towns.  Add 2.1 percent for inflation and it’s one step forward and two steps back.

 

The Redevelopment Agency is very active.  Unfortunately, it falls outside the city charter and seems to override Planning and Zoning.  Most of their projects fly below the public radar, involve convoluted tax credits and add more students than originally suggested to schools.  Improved financial tracking is needed for these projects. Better still, why not fold them back into P&Z?

Then there’s the income and salary issues.  According to the 2017 US Census Bureau, local per capita income for our 88,000 residents was $45,000 and median household income $80,000.  Contrast that with our largest employer, the City of Norwalk and 3,700+ full, part time and summer employees, where over 20 percent make over $100,000 and 50 percent over $45,000 excluding benefits.  How long is that sustainable given all the development that will require more teachers, firefighters and police?

This is why we need stronger leadership, accountability and fiscal management. I’ve long argued it comes from updating the city charter. A dry topic to be sure, but the Mayor seems to think it comes from additional ad-hoc committees and impotent task forces.  We don’t need more committees. We need planning and budgeting resolutely focused on outcomes not status quo political turfs.

A prominent politician recently said we needed to stop bashing the state.  To which I thought – it’s not the state we’re bashing, it’s the people running it!  The state’s issues are now Norwalk’s and we need leadership that will stand up for its residents.  Successful cities have vibrant downtowns!  They’re not ripped apart by over engineered ‘boondoggle’ bridges or dodgy tax credits for developments or ‘innovative’ business ventures that place additional financial burdens on residential property owners.  The Wall Street area’s woes are symptomatic of what ails a city with no leadership.  POKO, the outdated library, the various parking lot fiascos and blighted, burned out buildings reflect a political, lackluster history of organizational piecemeal planning, zoning and ordinance enforcement.

Demographic trends favors cities, but they need to be well-managed. Imagine instituting the same multi-year planning as the BOE, directed at real grand list growth instead of the hodge-podge projects we see now?  Our school district is the best city in the state, with student results closing in on Wilton!  I want to say that about my downtown area.

Mr. Mayor, what do you want Norwalk to be?  One thing getting old are promises made in November that turn into budget crises in February, then pats on the back in April and finally larger tax bills in July.

Lisa Brinton

Norwalk

12 comments

Sue Haynie April 30, 2018 at 7:02 am

Lisa brings up some great points:
property taxes that are out of control;
a mere .05% growth in grand list;
public employee salaries/benefits that don’t align with city’s median income or taxpayer ability to pay;
POKO, an outdated library and the blight of Norwalk’s core aka Wall Street;
demographic trends favoring cities;
the BOE’s multi-year planning and explanations of costs clearly articulated to citizenry

Susan April 30, 2018 at 7:31 am

I dont agree with Mrs. Haynie often and or on most things, however her final point about the BOE deserves some credit. This BOE has taken a lot of credit for test results and moving the needle, however they are spending us right into “Bridgeport”.

1.The BOE never met a problem that an expensive study could find the answer.
2. Middle School Redesign was poorly communicated to parents, students and staff, causing much hardships in the individual meetings. It continues to change and be manipulated.
3. Middle School Redesign was a power play to fix the problem at the High School level that the BOE (Barbis, Lyons Meek and Keyes) ignored for years… the increased credit requirements. Under their watch where was the fight for increased funding for teachers at the high school level?
4. The blame and disrespect shown to staff on social media to win a propaganda war that never need to be fought.

Finally the BOE acts as if this is a 0 sum game, when in fact it is not. Our children suffer when egos and gamesmanship supersede sound rational and collaborative decision making.

Leigh Grant April 30, 2018 at 7:42 am

As an advisory board member of Norwalk Association of Silvermine Homeowners, I’d like to add to Lisa’s accurate perspective on Norwalk by reiterating what NASH wrote as a proposed vision for the POCD. Please note in particular the last two lines:

We envision Norwalk first and foremost as a city that is responsive to its citizens; as a vibrant, inclusive small city that nurtures diversity, community, education, literacy and the arts; as a city that promotes transparency, enforcement, and interconnectness in government; that commissions and implements a long term plan as well as the 10-year POCDs; that prioritizes areas for light industry, office space, small businesses, public transportation and “complete streets” (pedestrian/bike/car―where appropriate), as opposed to large-scale retailers with low-paying jobs; that enhances and preserves the character of its neighborhoods; that continues to add open space; that protects environmentally sensitive areas, particularly the Sound, harbor, and river valleys, keeps a working waterfront, and recognizes and plans for climate change. Develop Norwalk by plan not by opportunity. Development should have a purpose.

Just Learned April 30, 2018 at 8:45 am

. . . yet another embarrassment to the city’s lax zoning regulations and feckless legal department which are too weak to challenge questionable zoning all under the “auspices of congregate living” , the town has approved an application for an enterprise nursing facility on a residential quiet street in West Norwalk. Each room is expected to fetch $5,000 rent/month for a total of $25,000/month or $300,000 a year revenue on an 2500 square foot home with around the clock staff. Despite the mosque debacle and promises made, little has been accomplished to prevent the transformation of residential city street into a mixed use hodgepodge with detrimental impacts to the grand list and family quality of life. Sad!

V April 30, 2018 at 9:34 am

Lisa -Excellent points and that’s why you got my vote this past November.

It also seems as though Mayor Rillings cozy relationships with local developers flies in the face of every taxpayer (and voter!) in Norwalk.

PIBerman April 30, 2018 at 10:58 am

Our greatest opportunity in a generation to revitalize our shabby Downtown with the gift of the GGP Mall is being squandered by City Hall’s love affair of Developers building profitable apartments. Rather than using scarce City funds to attract major new businesses and business buildings providing good jobs to our City residents. Neither our Mayor nor Council members understand the necessity of hiring top flight talent and consultants to guide a serious Downtown Redevelopment. That’s what Stamford did and we all know the results.

Hiring a City Planner from leafy New Canaan, an Economic Director from tiny New Caanan, seeking apartments, avoiding hiring major league City Development Expertise and supporting the devastating boondoggle Bridge together enhance Norwalk’s sad reputation as the “hole in the middle of the donut”.

The obvious question is why Mayor Rilling and the Council, not having senior level business experience, refuse to hire competent major league talent to jump start the unusual opportunity provided by the Mall to transform Norwalk into a real City. In year no. 5 increasingly the Mayor’s Legacy appears a lost opportunity to create a serious Downtown attracting good jobs to City residents. Plus the Bridge.

jlightfield April 30, 2018 at 12:47 pm

As the chair of the Norwalk Center Task Force and the co-founder of Norwalk 2.0, I object to Lisa’s characterization of impotent committees. Not every issue is a battle, not every issue is scored as a win or a loss in the facile way that makes for easy soundbites. The active community of Norwalk Center’s Art District did not spout from soundbites, it reflects the ongoing nature of grassroots and organic development and community outreach that has been supported by Mayor Rilling, and his administration, over many years and with many incremental actions.

Sure, there are planning problems with silos at City hall, starting with the overlap of Redevelopment Plans, that attempt to accomplish one thing, but actually are a deterrent to property owners and businesses. This is a fundamental philosophical difference in economic development that has plagued Norwalk for over a decade or two.

The solution is, imho, remove the Redevelopment Agency from staffing the Common Council’s planning committee, and return the authority to conduct all plans for all departments to the Planning and Zoning Department. Sure, there are many other structural changes that should be examined, but you have to start somewhere.

Strategically, the Save Downtown Norwalk petition is over 1600 signatures. Norwalk 2.0 is close to circulating a real plan for the Norwalk Center District, one that is based on the input of many businesses, residents, property owners, and yes, developers. We are long past a reckoning of the ROI on the single vision of the future of Norwalk supplied by the Redevelopment Agency. To paraphrase Einstein, the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Al Bore April 30, 2018 at 5:50 pm

It is a lack of smart planning, poor zoning laws and the lining of the pockets from the developers to the city government that is causing Norwalk to become over developed over crowded. The resident homeowners pay for it with our taxes going up and our quality of life going down. We had an opportunity last November to change that and here we are again wishing we would have, should have, could have. We need a professional city manager to run the city.

Rusty Guardrail April 30, 2018 at 5:56 pm

Why does an unelected “Redevelopment Agency” call the shots? Why do they exist at all? This city is a total mess!

No committee or task force is needed to figure out that our property taxes are subsidizing apartment complexes that benefit only the developers & contractors.

Donna Smirniotopoulos April 30, 2018 at 8:09 pm

Hopefully, some on the BET and Planning Commission are paying attention. As for the mayor, he seems to only chime in these days to make veiled threats or throw a few defensive jabs. If Harry Rilling were a literary character, he would be an Ironic Hero.

Ironic Heroes make notoriously bad leaders. Think Nixon. Think Trump. Think the King in Exit the King. Think the Emperor in The Emperor’s New Clothes. With an Ironic Hero, we can see what the Ironic Hero cannot because he is unselfaware. In Norwalk, what we see is a rising tide of residential property tax hikes, exploding public works projects (Walk Bridge), tax holidays for developers/campaign donors, and school budgets gone wild with no commensurate shift in the ECS. Try telling a home health care aid making $15/hour why the mayor’s office costs us $1,000,000 a year.

Rayj April 30, 2018 at 11:02 pm

The library works for me and hundreds of others every day. What is it that needs improvement? For instance what was it you couldn’t get from it the last time you went there ? Or went online?

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