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Norwalk political notes: A $1 million rumor

Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling in June advocates for his proposed reorganization of City administrative staff, in City Hall. Watching are Donna Smirniotopoulos and Lisa Brinton.

The election is Nov. 5.

Correction, 9:45 p.m. Feb. 20: Smirniotopoulos was not asked about $1 million reorg; information added. Updated, 3 a.m. Feb. 20: links added; photos of protest; 8:19 a.m.: Copy edits

NORWALK, Conn. – Here’s some political news for you:

  • Some question reorg’s pricetag
  • YMCA land transfer approved
  • Aquarium restructuring approved
  • Rock crushing behind Ely is for tennis courts

 

‘Trying to create controversy with misinformation’

Norwalk officials deny that Mayor Harry Rilling’s reorganization of top administrative staff is costing $1 million a year.

Documents dated Aug. 8 pegged the cost of the reorganization as $188,140; Mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton has mentioned $1 million “of staff” and two of her supporters are saying the reorg cost $1 million.

“The claim that the Re-Organization costs over a million dollars is false. It is unfortunate people would try to create controversy by suggesting misinformation,” Norwalk Communications Manager Joshua Morgan wrote to NancyOnNorwalk on Feb. 7.

NoN was inquiring about the cost of the reorganization, approved by the Common Council on Sept. 11, because Donna Smirniotopoulos submitted a letter to the editor, claiming, “the City is understaffed, in spite of the mayor’s reorganization, which added a new layer of high-level management at an annual cost of one million dollars.”

The alleged “$1 million cost to the reorg” has appeared in the NoN comments section as well.  Brinton on Dec. 18 left a comment on NancyOnNorwalk, which included the accusation that Mayor Harry Rilling had added “another layer of $1M staff.”

Patrick Cooper also referred to, “the 1 million staff reorganization,” in a Dec. 20 comment on NancyOnNorwalk.

Brinton did not reply to emails sent by NancyOnNorwalk last week asking what she meant.

Cooper declined to comment. Smirniotopoulos said she calculated the $1 million by adding the by taking the top salaries of the “approximately five new positions” that were created.

The Aug. 8 documents, created by then-Finance Director Bob Barron, show $277,409 in additional costs arising from the reorg, mostly from new positions created plus a $36,000 raise for Laoise King in her promotion to Chief of Staff.  NancyOnNorwalk reported Sep. 12 that those costs are offset by $96,260 in savings, according to Barron’s tally.

“If each new hire received the top of the salary range and throw in Ms. King’s bump in pay, you get pretty close to $1,000,000 (885k not including benefits),” Smirniotopoulos wrote.

Morgan wrote:

“The claim that the Re-Organization costs over a million dollars is false. It is unfortunate people would try to create controversy by suggesting misinformation. This process was conducted over many months at countless public meetings. A full breakdown of the costs (with a clear summary on page 99) can be found in the September 11 Council packet: https://www.norwalkct.org/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/13714

“That clearly shows the net increase was $181,140 – or 0.05 percent of the total $354 million Operating Budget. There has been no change to what was approved by the Common Council.

“Again, whoever is making this claim is just wrong. A plan that would add millions of dollars to the city’s budget would never have been proposed, let alone approved. The approved Re-Org aligned City departments more rationally and efficiently. We will continue to look for ways to eliminate inefficiencies, break down departmental silos, and improve service to the public.”

 

 

 

‘Get that in writing’

The Common Council on Tuesday greenlighted the sale of two slivers of City land to Norwalk Hospital, to allow the hospital’s planned redevelopment of the YMCA property to go forward.

No mention was made of objections voiced by former Council member Richard Bonenfant, a Republican.

“I am not in general in favor of selling off city lands,” Bonenfant said, voicing an understatement.

The proposed mix-use development is promoted as a future community hub that generates jobs and substantial real estate tax dollars through fully taxable real property.

“I hope you hold them to that, get that one in writing,” Bonenfant said. “If you can’t guarantee that the hospital is going to pay full taxes on that, that they won’t turn it into a nonprofit or they won’t come for some locally-sponsored tax break then I think you’re better off just just leasing it to them for $100,000 a year and calling it your property.”

The Council unanimously approved the sale for the appraised value of $950,000. The City will pay the State $176,000 for the release of the deed restriction.

The YMCA parking lot has been used for overflow parking when there are events at Matthews Park, Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) said.

The hospital has agreed to “execute a mutually agreeable lease agreement for the continued use of the parking lot,” he said.

“We don’t know when they’ll start (construction) but we want to make sure we have access to the property until they do,” Livingston said. “Once they start, we will probably not be able to get into the property… assuming we are not, they have agreed that they will execute upon completion a 99-year lease agreement to provide 50 parking spaces within the parking structure for Mathews Park special event overflow parking.”

 

 

Norwalk taking lead in Aquarium renovation

The Council also approved a restructuring of relationships related to the construction of a new 4-D theater for the Maritime Aquarium, a project which also includes new homes for the Aquarium’s meerkats and seals.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) is paying the bill because it’s demolishing the Maritime’s IMAX theater as part of its Walk Bridge reconstruction project and the tri-party relationship – State, City and Aquarium – just wasn’t working, Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo wrote on Feb. 1.

ConnDOT is on the hook because the City owns the Aquarium and the facility contributes to the public good. Under the federally mandated “functional replacement” program, the agreement is between the State and the City, but Norwalk leaders sought to let the Aquarium take the lead, and arrange for funding to flow directly from the State to the Aquarium, Lo wrote.

As a result, the Aquarium had the responsibility to manage and select contracts, and when the bids came in over budget last fall, ConnDOT put the project on hold to evaluate the project plans and consider redesign options, Lo explained.

“The State determined that the three-party relationship was too complicated and requested the relationship be restructured with the City having full responsibility on holding and managing the expenditure of funds as well as direct responsibility over all contracts necessary for the implementation of this project,” Lo wrote. “Maritime Aquarium will continue to play an integral role in finalizing the revised building program and design and to provide leadership in the coordination of construction activities and aquarium operations during construction.”

The Aquarium’s plans for a state-of-the-art 4-D theater were estimated to cost $34.5 million, Maritime Board of Trustees Co-Chairman Michael Widland said in May.

“The Mayor and city staff agree that a restructuring is in the best interest of the project, as the City has greater expertise and experience in completing large construction projects funded by the state,” he continued. “As the functional replacement agreement has always been between the City and the State with the Aquarium participating by a side agreement, the change in management of the contracts does not increase the City’s exposure to any additional liability or costs.”

 

Ely rock crushing is for tennis courts

“Grasso Construction, a company known for not being good for Norwalk, has been crushing and screening rocks or concrete behind the Nathaniel Ely School,” a reader wrote to NancyOnNorwalk recently. “The proximity to the school is cause for alarm as crushing concrete generates dust that isn’t good to breathe.  I would be appalled if they got approval for such a thing without a big to-do about crushing near a school, not to mention the housing nearby.”

The rock crushing is for two new tennis courts in Springwood Ely Park, to be used by Grassroots Tennis, Lo informed NoN.

“This project is being implemented in collaboration and with financial support from Norwalk Grassroots Tennis and US Tennis Association,” Lo wrote. “As part of this project, we will reconstruct four existing tennis courts, will install two additional tennis courts and two practice/junior courts.  The new tennis courts are located in an area where an existing large mount of earth and rock must be removed.   The site contractor set up rock crushing equipment as part of the soil screening equipment on site in order to process and reuse the excavated material efficiently on site.”

 

A woman protests Monday on the Stroffolino Bridge. (Contributed)

Woman moved to organize protest

A “fake national emergency” brought up to 50 people to the Stroffolino Bridge, Monday in SoNo.

The protest, organized via MoveOn.org, was inspired by President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border in order to take money allocated for other purposes and use it to fund a wall along the Mexican border, instead of obtaining funds through a congressional appropriation, or making Mexico pay for it.

The “declaration of an emergency that doesn’t really seem to be an emergency” inspired the protest, organizer Batya Diamond said, calling it “an excuse for Donald Trump to be taking money that he’s not necessarily entitled to.”

A child assists in a protest Monday on the Stroffolino Bridge. (Contributed)

“It’s up to Congress to appropriate that money,” Diamond said.  Protesters turned out to “fight (Trump’s) anti-immigration and racist views to keep people out of this country,” she added.

White House adviser Stephen Miller on Sunday spoke to Fox News in defense of Trump’s wall, saying, “(W)e already have 4,000 troops on the border in light of a national emergency, a decision that was made almost a year ago, as we see an increasing number of people crossing the border as well as increasing violence in Mexico. What the president was saying is that like past presidents, he could choose to ignore this crisis, choose to ignore this emergency as others have; that’s not what he’s going to do.”

Please enjoy this video by Harold Cobin.

Protesters Monday on the Stroffolino Bridge. (Contributed)

Diane Keefe and John Levin protest Monday on the Stroffolino Bridge. (Contributed)

A man protests Monday on the Stroffolino Bridge. (Contributed)

14 comments

Lisa Brinton February 19, 2019 at 4:57 am

Nancy, With all due respect, I’m on vacation outside of Norwalk and have limited access to email or other City documents. Sorry. As I am currently at an airport and catching up on emails, I believe you have been referred to your own Reorganization stories printed sometime last September 🙂

I also believe you have recently been provided with email details from the former Finance Director, Bob Barron on tax credits for the 95/7 parcels of land. This was in reference to comment queries yesterday as to whether or not tax credits had previously been issued by the city – (your Innovation District story.) Thanks!

Jason Milligan February 19, 2019 at 7:15 am

Shouldn’t a reorganization save money through efficiencies?

This reorg will cost somewhere between $181,000 & $1 million per year.

“This process was done over many months and it is only .05% of tbe budget.”

Its less than $500 to $3000 per day…

Don’t worry a full and clear breakdown is buried on pg 99 of some report that you can find if you submit a freedom of information request.

Nothing to see here.

Please get distracted by something else Trump does and stop focusing on what this admimistration is trying to sneak by you.

alan February 19, 2019 at 8:22 am

Rock crushing next to a school and housing is OK if it is related to tennis? If the city has no rules against when & where rock crushing is allowed, so be it. If rules are being ignored…shut it down.

Jack February 19, 2019 at 9:25 am

Re: Rock Crushing.

What Mr. Lo failed to mention to Nancy is that Grasso Construction brought in their own outside material to crush, using city property next to a school as their own personal rock crushing yard. They got busted and had to remove their material from the site. This company KNOWS they aren’t suppose to do it, but since there are no penalties for it, of course they did it until they got caught. And still the city hands Grasso City contracts because they are the low bidder. I suppose it’s easy to be the low bidder when you constantly break the rules without penalty.

Nathaniel Ely parents should call the city about the unchecked crushing behind the school where their kids play. Silicate dust from crushing is NOT healthy to breathe and there are playgrounds mere feet from this site.

Piberman February 19, 2019 at 11:20 am

Mayor Rilling’s “Reorganization” sadly reflects the consequences of electing public officials with business management experience. Freshman business students learn that Reorgs are done to save monies and that those suggesting the Reorgs are obligated to detail just how the “savings” are supposed to accrue. Mayor Rilling’s “team” hasn’t produced those reports in detail. The one million figure reflects the Reorg Costs for one year extended over a decade.

Equally important is why Mayor Rilling refuses to use Prof. Search to hire Top Talent for Norwalk, why he always gives his “team” annual raises for doing the same job, refuses to identify cost savings or demand Team members do more with less resources. With “Team” members receiving annual raises our entire City labor force demands the same.

Nowalk’s reputation as a problematic City goes back many decades. And its one of the reasons major business avoids investing in Norwalk. And explains why the City has a decade long stagnant Grand List even with population gains and new apartment buildings.

Many decades ago Norwalk had a well established reputation as one of CT’s best managed cities. Not because its citizens elected business savvy Mayors. But because they elected business savvy Council members many of whom ran local small businesses. Big Box pushed out those citizens but we continue to elect officials lacking business expeience. Just take a look at the backgrounds of elected officials in our surrounding towns and see the powerful difference. Few if any of our Council members would quality.

Many of us familiar with Mayor Rilling’s administration of the Police Dept hoped he’d reach out to our City’s well qualified citizens who have major management expeience for assistance in creating a modern well governed City. Along with making the crucial change to using Prof. Search to secure Top Talent forming a team well qualified to keep City outlays affordable.

Sadly these expections haven’t been met. Rather than leave a major Legacy of modern, efficient governance in Norwalk Mayor Rilling seems to have not taken much interest in modernizing City Hall.
There’s still time to leave a major Legacy of creating an admired low cost modern governance at City hall. But taht can’t be done without hiring Top Talent. And Top Talent isn’t available without using Prof. Search.
Top Talent doesn’t answer “ads”.

With its decade long stagnant Grand List, falling propertyvalues, punitive property tax levels, exodus of long time residents, influx of renters not paying their full share Norwalk is a challenged City riskin a Bridgeport solution. Not to mention our long stagnant CT economy and unprecedented Exodus – witness an unprecedented 4,000 homes for sale in the Gold Coast.

Mayor Rilling says he loves Norwalk. No doubt that’s true. So why not leave a Legacy of a modern well run affordable City. Our BOE was poorly managed for decades. Headed by Mike Lyons the BOE used Prof Search to secure Top Talent Sujpt’s and completely revamped its financial operations. So it can be done. But its up to Mayor Rilling to ask for assistance from those of us who have major experience running large organizations. And its up to the Mayor to use Prof. Search to hire Top Talent.

Norwalk has never had a modern Mayor who left a Legacy of a well managed efficient City. Why not begin now ? With a One Party City it ought not be hard. A good way to begin is to hire capable consultants and ask for a through review of how to do a Reorg that will bring credit to the City and be well recognized as a real step forward. Or ask citizens knowledgeable about ReOrgs for their help. A do it yourself Reorg is a real non-starter. Taxpayers, Mayor Rilling and the City Hall team would all benefit from a modern, well managed City Hall bringing a good reputation and new business to Norwalk.

Rusty Guardrail February 19, 2019 at 12:23 pm

Previous news reports have stated that by changing company ownership from one family member to another Grasso beat the city out of unpaid taxes due. Now they’re getting away with poisoning the air breathed by Norwalk school kids. If you’re very big or very wealthy or very sneaky you can push our city government around.

carol February 19, 2019 at 5:41 pm

of course rilling loves norwalk,he gets away with everything,has his buddies in all important positions,gives raises to everyone and we the taxpayer are footing the bills.

James Cahn February 19, 2019 at 8:22 pm

This madness needs to stop. How many more times this year are we going to have Josh Morgan literally drop his grant writing and 22nd century Social Media Management expertise on the “Norwalk Facebook page” to issue these Pindaric, compelling responses?

Nancy Chapman February 20, 2019 at 3:36 pm

I emailed Lisa Brinton on Feb. 8 and Feb. 16 and did not receive a response.

As mentioned above, my prior reporting states that the re-org’s net cost has been pegged at $188,140 by former Finance Director Bob Barron. Many of the new chief positions were filled by existing department heads. A link to his documentation has been added to this story.

Jason Milligan February 20, 2019 at 10:15 pm

Shouldn’t a reorganization save money?

This one cost more money. At least $181k more per year. More likely closer to $1 million per year more.

Why is Bob Barron former?

Shaniqua February 21, 2019 at 8:48 am

I live right there where Grasso is werking.
How are we supposed to get our park done if they dont get the rock out of there.
Why dont these people mind there own busness and stop harrassing workers .

Roger February 21, 2019 at 1:15 pm

Me and my kids live in the apartments that look at Ely park and I have not thought that anything that Grasso is doing is bad or unhealthy. Why do you people complain about everything.

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