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Norwalk political notes: Redevelopment scrutiny; BoE member MIA; tax collector et al lauded

From left, Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Commissioners share a laugh early in Tuesday’s meeting. Serrano was re-elected chairman and Cooper was elected vice chair.

Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Commissioner David Westmoreland queries RDA Comptroller John Slovak on Tuesday in City Hall.

Updated, 6:48 a.m.: Copy edit

NORWALK, Conn. — Here’s a roundup of Norwalk political matters:

  • Westmoreland questions RDA grant funding
  • Serrano continues as RDA Chairman
  • ‘Growing’ SoNoCC
  • Anderson still MIA from BoE
  • Tax collector cites court-mandated refunds as reducing intake
  • Appointments, appointments

 

Westmoreland’s debut

The standard-issue Redevelopment Agency financial report had a twist Tuesday: questions from new Commissioner David Westmoreland.

Westmoreland wanted to know what the NRA grant for city projects is.

The grant had been $30,553 for May and $40,575 for April, according to the report.

Comptroller John Slovak explained that it’s “ultimately coming from Agency revenue” and funds the Agency’s staffing and economic development work.

“Sorry for my ignorance. What Agency revenue is there?” asked Tom Devine, who has been on the Agency since January 2014.  Devine is President of Devine Bros., Inc., according to LinkedIn.

“The NRA grant for city projects is the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency cash and deferred revenues and retained earnings. That’s being used to fund City of Norwalk projects,” Slovak said. “It’s used to pay salaries and benefits of the employees of the agency to administer those projects for the city.”

Westmoreland asked if there’s a balance sheet and Slovak replied that it’s Redevelopment Agency cash that it’s had for years, being spent on City projects.

“We essentially don’t get a grant for operating budget from the city of Norwalk, believe it or not,” Slovak said. “One of our projects, The SoNo Collection, is going to generate $5 million of new tax revenue for the City of Norwalk every year for the next 40 years. But we don’t get an operating grant.”

Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan told Westmoreland that Commissioners get a “full statement of all of the agency accounts” quarterly, and suggested that he could review previous postings, offering that staff could review them with him.

 

Serrano continues leading RDA

Also on Tuesday evening, the Redevelopment Agency elected officers in conjunction with the beginning of a new fiscal year.

Felix Serrano was re-elected chairman, with Lisa Cooper elected vice chairman and Devine secretary/treasurer.

The votes were all 3-0-2, with Westmoreland and new Commissioner William Speirs abstaining.

 

 

Peña: Too soon to discuss where money will go

The city is considering buying half of 98 South Main St. from the South Norwalk Community Center for  $300,000.

How will SoNoCC spend the money?

“I think it’s a little premature to discuss this.  However, funds will be spent to grow the organization,” South Norwalk Community Center Board Chairman Warren Peña wrote Wednesday in an email to NancyOnNorwalk.

Finance Director Bob Barron in June said that the City has spent money on SoNoCC expenses because, “the city as half owner wasn’t going to leave the broken locks, wasn’t going to have electric or gas shut off.”

Norwalk built the building in the 80s and transferred ownership to Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) and SoNoCC in August 1987. NEON has gone bankrupt and the City took back NEON’s half last year.

When the building-half is bought, “there will be list of all the revenues that were taken in during that period and all the expenditures made by both parties and there will be reconciliation that will be netted from the $300,000,” Barron said in June.

 

 

 

Anderson missing for months

Board of Education member Erik Anderson has not attended a Board of Education meeting since March 7.

Anderson declined to comment when asked about this recently. BoE Chairman Mike Barbis did not reply to an email asking about it.

“I haven’t seen him since he was elected,” District B Democrats Chairman Bobby Burgess said Tuesday.

Anderson replaced Migdalia Rivas in 2015 after defeating her in a District B Democratic primary. He is BoE vice chairman and therefore on the Executive Committee. He is also PTOC (Parent Teacher Organization Council) liaison, master plan representative and chairman of the Special Education Committee.

 

Biagiarelli: Court mandated refunds hurting Norwalk’s pocketbook

An excerpt from Tax Collector Lisa Biagiarelli’s June 14 letter to the Board of Estimate and Taxation, included in the BET packet:

“As of the end of May, 2018, with only one month left to go in our current fiscal year, we had collected in excess of $307 million, or 98.97% of our $311+ million adjusted tax levy. In addition, as of the end of May, 2018, we collected in excess of $15 million of our sewer use levy, or 98.89%. We also collected 87.67% of the year’s IPP (Industrial Pretreatment Program) fee on behalf of the Water Pollution Control Authority. Compared with the prior fiscal year, we are slightly ahead with regard to both current taxes (.11%) and sewer use (.14%) collections.”

 

Here’s the comment about refunds:

“Also, through the month of May 2018, we showed a net collection of $3.2 million in back taxes, interest, lien fees and other fees. This amount is still less than we collected in the prior fiscal year at this time. Our net back tax collectible as of May 2018 is actually less than it was last month, in spite of this being a tax sale year with robust delinquent collections. This is a result of tax credits and refunds. These figures are net of refunds and credits that had to be given due to court cases where taxpayers successfully appealed their assessment and were due money back. During this fiscal year we also have been dealing with a higher than usual number of overpayments, in some cases intentional, that were made in December 2017 and January 2018 due to changes in the federal tax laws (referred to as “SALT” limitations). These collection figures are net of those funds that have already been returned.”

 

 

 

A slew of appointments

The Common Council on Tuesday unanimously approved four appointments and seven reappointments, lavishing praise on most.

The appointments:

  • Tyrone McClain to the Library Board
  • Former Republican Mayoral candidate Kelly Straniti as an alternate Zoning Commissioner
  • Deborah Lewis to the Bike/Walk Commission
  • Erica Kipp to the Tree Advisory Commission

 

Former Council member Rich Bonefant thanked the Council for appointing Straniti, noting that he served with her for many years on the Council and saying that she has “a lot of integrity” and “does her homework.”

Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) said Straniti is a business owner who is committed to serving Norwalk.

‘She knows Norwalk and the work that I have done with her in the past, she comes prepared, she does her homework and I think this would be a great addition to the Zoning Commission,” Burnett said.

Doug Hempstead (R-District D) was absent.

Tom Livingston (D-District E) said Lewis has lived in Norwalk for 30 years and has a 40-year “career in prevention and health promotion and wellness,” which is “exactly what the (Bike/Walk) Commission is about.”

Kipp and McClain were said to have impressive resumes.

Reappointed were:

  • Tax Collector Lisa Biagiarelli
  • Mike Mushak to the Planning Commission
  • Richard Roina and Rod Johnson to the Zoning Commission
  • Nancy Rosett to to the Bike/Walk Commission
  • Andrew Strauss and Peter Viteretto to the Tree Advisory Commission

 

Mayor Harry Rilling said he was “particularly happy” about reappointing Biagiarelli, noting her high percentage of tax collections.

Burnett nominated Biagiarelli, saying, “When I think of Lisa, I think of three words: proactive, prepared and precise,” and noting her “more than 29 years of tax collecting experience,” 18 of which are in Norwalk.

Majority Leader John Igneri (D-District E) said Biagiarelli is a “wonderful person to work with.”

“I am leaving meetings sometimes at 7 or 8 o’clock and she is downstairs on the tax sale board, changing names and so forth, so she is a dedicated employee,” Igneri said. “I think she’s great.”

Norwalk Tax Collector Lisa Biagiarelli emotes an “aw shucks” reaction Tuesday to words of praise from Common Council members in City Hall.

Biagiarelli “sets the model for the state and many municipalities around the country,” Travis Simms (D-District B) said, commenting that, “I hope she continues 20-30 years.”

Mushak was also lauded, with Livingston commenting, “Mike is always involved. He is always out giving his money, his time, his energy to move this city forward. I think he is a tremendous addition to the Planning Commission and a great asset to our city.”

From left, Planning Commissioner Mike Mushak, Tree Advisory Commission member Peter Viteretto (in rear) and Zoning Commission Chairman Nate Sumpter, Tuesday in City Hall.

“Even though we don’t see eye to eye a lot, Michael is probably one of the hardest working citizens I know. I mean, he is at every meeting that the City has,” Simms said. “… We need a person like Michael that is a visionary for the city and will call things like they are. I know Mike will be fair and he will be practical at the same time.”

Roina is thoughtful with great attention to detail and he sees things and issues in projects that might not be obvious to everyone else,” said Doug Stern (D-At Large), a former Zoning Commissioner.

“He is held in the highest esteem by his colleagues,” Michael Corsello (D-At Large) said. “He is thought of {as} the dean of the Norwalk real estate bar and the fact that he is willing to serve on the Zoning Commission without compensation, we are very, very fortunate.”

Bike/Walk Commission Chairwoman Nancy Rosett.

Of Johnson, Stern said, “I think the Commission worked best when there was a real diversity of professional experiences that all lend themselves well together to come up with the right decision, both general expertise is important but also specific expertise is important. As a career architect, Rod had a real taste for projects and a perspective that benefitted all members of the Commission.”

Rilling called Rosett a hard worker, and Igneri said, “As I am going around the city, I find her on all different spots on her bike. So, I think she’ll be excellent.”

Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) thanked Rosett, Bike/Walk Commission Chairwoman, for her “hard work in making it an official city commission and giving other people in our city the opportunity to get involved.”

From left, Common Council members Ernie Dumas (D-District B), Travis Simms (D-District B), Doug Stern (D-At Large) and Barbara Smyth (D-At Large), Tuesday in City Hall. It was Dumas’ first meeting as a Council member. “It was fascinating,” he said. The meeting included an executive session about the lawsuit filed by the City and Redevelopment Agency against ILSR and Wall Street Opportunity Fund.

13 comments

Sue Haynie July 12, 2018 at 6:01 am

The sub-heading is the article is:

“Court mandated (tax) refunds hurting Norwalk’s pocketbook”

but later in the article, the reason is explained:

“refunds and credits that had to be given due to court cases where taxpayers successfully appealed their assessment and were due money back”

As a over-burdened Norwalk taxpayer myself, I don’t blame those taxpayers who have the time and means to appeal their assessments…and win!

Norwalk property taxes are burdensome and excessive. Property owners do not get what we pay for.

Non Partisan July 12, 2018 at 7:07 am

Norwalk real estate taxes are a local form of wealth redistribution. Take from the middle and upper income- give to the poor. It should be no surprise that

– illegal immigrants and low income flock to Norwalk for our free stuff. ESL and SPED are taking bigger chunks of the annual budget.
– the middle income aren’t buying homes here at the same rate as neighboring communities,. Home values are down 5-6% vs 5 years ago ( in opposite trend to regional and national rates)
– the upper income are fleeing.

The question is- how do we change these trends?

Lisa Brinton Thomson July 12, 2018 at 7:09 am

A lot of topics in this story, but here’s a common theme: follow the money.

@ Sue Haynie Norwalk taxpayers ARE overburdened, while the state goes bankrupt and the mayor doles out raises to staff (under the guise of a fake ‘reorganization’) while suing developers, who don’t pay homage, and ignoring the state’s shortchanging the city on the Walk Bridge, while attempting to executie a questionable payout to SoNo CC.

Don’t you love single party politics?

Speaking of money, thank you David Westmoreland – for your service and initiating the dialogue re: RDA accountability. Follow the money. Again, I’ll refer you to three questions I had on another post:
1. Why do we need the RDA?
2. Can it not be merged with P&Z? (There’s a real reorganization.)
3. Where are the funds for the Mayor’s Poko lawsuit coming from – an RDA grant or taxpayer money?

Can you also find out if the RDA Commission voted on the lawsuit? Norwalk’s municipal structure is so convoluted – (evidenced by a previous lawsuit (then dropped) by the Library Board towards the Zoning Commission re: the same developer.

Follow the money. Who sues? Who pays? Who collects?

PIBerman July 12, 2018 at 9:01 am

To non-partisan:
The wealth distribution is not from rich to poor. But from City homeowner to our highly paid public Union employees who mostly live outside Norwalk. Most City outlays are for salaries. Our Mayor is paid as much as the Governor. Principals are paid upwards of $200k. Many Administrators are paid around $150k. Not counting very generous benefits. For a City with median household incomes around $70k these are very generous salaries indeed.

How do we know our City taxes are punitive ? Falling property values, exodus of long time homeowners and long stagnant Grand List all suggest Norwalk isn’t quite “CT’s Greatest City” as Mayor Rilling claims.
Falling property values send a clear message – newcomers not interested in buying homes here in Norwalk. Well managed cities attract new homeowners.

So what can distressed homeowners facing ever more punitive taxes and falling property values do. Join the Exodus seems the most attractive solution in our one Party City.

So what can a poor homeowner do ? Silly question.

Patrick Cooper July 12, 2018 at 9:09 am

@Sue Haynie – agreed. However, what percent of those “taxpayers” who appealed and won were residential owners? I’d bet a significant number of those “appeals” were done by commercial interests – the devil is in the details. Unless you’re an attorney with some level of expertise in that field, who can write off their own time for “free”, who else challenges a $3,000 swing by spending $10,000 in legal fees? Waterfront, Wilson Point, and Rowayton – maybe.

Follow the money indeed.

Cecilia Andy July 12, 2018 at 10:48 am

City residents should expect the continued erosion of property values and much higher taxes in the years forthcoming- this a no brainer. Why would any potential homeowners ever be attracted to a city which allows commercial elder care facilities charging $5,000 – 6,000/per room with around the clock staff on residential streets on top of half way homes and commercial businesses? Norwalk’s residential brand continues to erode by the lack of leadership and skilled legal and p&z staff to shore up and protect residential quality of life.

Al Bore July 12, 2018 at 11:21 am

refunds and credits that had to be given due to court cases where taxpayers successfully appealed their assessment and were due money back” Norwalk property values are going down and taxes are going up. Time for a change in Norwalk government, it’s almost to late. Clean house it is a mess here.

Bill Nightingale July 12, 2018 at 2:54 pm

This is pathetic: Slovak said. “One of our projects, The SoNo Collection, is going to generate $5 million of new tax revenue for the City of Norwalk every year for the next 40 years. But we don’t get an operating grant.”

The actual facts are that the redevelopment agency screwed up the original mixed use intent for 95/7 so badly that it has been an empty lot for 20 years. They cost Norwalk residents 20 years of lost property tax. On top of that they gave away a seven year 50% tax abatement to the mall that begins when the mall is finished. So that is $35mm down the drain right there. Given Mall trends there wont be much value left in the mall by the time the tax abatement expires so Norwalk will never really see much financial benefit for Sono Collection. Any private developer could have built a mall there 20 years ago and we could have been collecting full tax all that time. But the Redevelopment Agency had to mess it all up at an enormous cost to taxpayers.

Redevelopment Agency needs to be abolished. The way they describe their finances is really something from another planet.

Non Partisan July 12, 2018 at 6:52 pm

@ Berman

Agree that cost control and salaries : benefits are high. But that’s only a part of the negative driver on home values.

The taxes are much higher than they would be if we weren’t subsiding so many units of housing, subsidizing esl and sped, and values are lower because average test scores are too low for many potential buyers to spend top dollar to live here.

Al Bore July 13, 2018 at 8:26 am

Spot on Non Partisan. Why is it that the residents see the problems of the city and the city government does not. The answer, we the homeowners of Norwalk have to pay for it all. A side note: I agree abolish the Redevelopment Agency, they are a waste.

Non Partisan July 14, 2018 at 7:32 am

The RDA has one single focus- maximize the number of subsidized housing units. Some of our leaders think this is a good thing

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