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Norwalk political roundup: Saving $2M, beach issues and a Facebook situation

A Norwalk Parking Authority officer on Wednesday patrols Calf Pasture Beach.

Updated, 10:43 a.m.: Added details of one instance in Dec. 2017 when Rilling responded to a complaint about snow removal made on his personal Facebook page.

 

NORWALK, Conn. — Some Norwalk political developments:

  • Bond refunding to save $2 million a year
  • Rilling authorizes more police at beach
  • Did Rilling emulate Trump?

A major bond refinance move

The City expects to save $2 million a year by issuing $35 million in general obligation refunding bonds on Aug. 15, a move approved by Tuesday by the Common Council.

“It’s a freebie that the market is giving us,” Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz said.

He noted that the move is similar to refinancing one’s mortgage.

“We are very fortunate in having record low interest rates right now,” he said.

The City’s financial adviser calculated $2.275 million a year in total estimated annual savings from 2020-2033 but proper financial practice is to the refer to the net present value of the savings, which comes to just over $2 million, according to Dachowitz. The estimated present value savings as a percentage of the bonds is 6.6%.

Dachowitz replaced former Chief Financial Officer Bob Barron, who resigned in January.

“He is bringing new ideas, new thoughts, new vision,” Mayor Harry Rilling said. “He brings with him a wealth of knowledge and professionalism that I think long-term is going to serve the city extremely well.”

The City refinanced $16 million of outstanding city debt in 2015, saving $719,544 over 16 years, a press release said at the time.

“We do this periodically, when we find that there’s low interest rates that we issue a refunding of the bonds. This is going to save us over $2 million a year,” Rilling said Tuesday to NancyOnNorwalk.

As for the “new ideas,” Rilling said the City is studying its plans to fund school construction, asking why it would bond the cost for 15 years when the school is expected to last 50.

“If we issue a bond for 30 years, as opposed to 15, we get a better bang for our buck, we get better interest rates. So we’re looking at that as well,” Rilling said.

 

 

‘There’s going to be some wrinkles’

It’s been tough to get into Calf Pasture Beach on occasion: according to NoN Board Member Claire Schoen, access was denied at 3 p.m. July 4 because there were no parking spaces left.

“We have a beautiful, beautiful beach,” Rilling said to NancyOnNorwalk. “And we have set in place certain guidelines and rules that are in place for years. We cannot block anybody from coming into the beach, we can charge for parking. The new parking regulations are exactly the same as they were in the past except you don’t have to stop at the front gate.”

Norwalk has switched to a cashless system. A Norwalk Parking Authority vehicle patrols the parking lot using a license plate reader, and an officer issues tickets to non-residents who haven’t paid for parking through an app.

Rilling’s been taking flak from residents complaining about out-of-state plates in the parking lot.

By City ordinance, a person with a vehicle registered in New York can park for free at Calf Pasture if they own property in Norwalk, he said.

“Believe me, any New York-registered plate that is not a City of Norwalk property owner will be charged an out-of-state or an out-of-town fee. It’s a new system, there’s going to be some wrinkles,” Rilling said.

Norwalk is proud of its beach, but federal law precludes keeping people out, he said.

“We’re going to be looking at the other kinds of things we can do to make the beach experience more pleasurable for Norwalk residents,” Rilling said. “But also, we have to allow people from out of town or out of state to come into the beach as long as they pay their fee and as long as they abide by our rules and regulations. I’ve also authorized an increase in police officers while this new process is being worked out. I’ve also authorized an increase in beach, Parks and Rec staff, people to be at the beach during the weekends.”

Schoen had asked why the gatehouse was moved from the entrance to the mouth of the inner parking lot.

Cars were backing up when the gatehouse was at the entrance, sometimes to Marvin School, and now it’s going much better, Rilling said.

“With the increased police presence … that I just authorized, and the increased Parks and Recreation staff, I think we will be on top of things and you know, things will start to smooth out,” Rilling said. “With any new process, there’s going to be wrinkles and things that you didn’t really account for, or think about. But then you make those adjustments. I always say, look, we can implement the program, implement the policy. But, then as you see it operating, you can make the adjustments you need to make, kind of tweak it.”

Rilling added that changes won’t come this year, as it’s in-season.  “The ultimate goal is to make the beach experience more pleasurable and more accessible to Norwalk residents with less disruption.”

 

‘This problem in Norwalk’

A Norwalk citizen claims that Mayor Harry Rilling has violated her civil rights by blocking her on Facebook.
Rilling says that the citizen, Donna Smirniotopoulos, is blocked from his personal Facebook page, not his Mayoral page or the City’s page. She’s the only citizen he’s blocked, he said.

On Tuesday, a federal appeals court ruled that President Donald Trump is violating the Constitution by blocking people from following his Twitter account because they criticized or mocked him.

“As a taxpayer and citizen, I feel it is a violation of my rights to block me from discourse on social media if the official is using social media to discuss the City’s business,” Smirniotopoulos wrote, citing the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that a Virginia politician violated the Constitution by temporarily blocking a critic from her official Facebook page.

Rilling said Tuesday he was having his legal team look at the situation to determine if the Virgina ruling could also pertain to his personal Facebook page.

“There is I think … a little bit of a difference,” Rilling said. “If I find that my website is considered to be the same as {the Virginia page}, then I certainly will unblock her.”

The Virginia citizen was blocked from the “Chair Phyllis J. Randall” page.  Randall is Chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, and all of her posts on the page appear to be announcements to constituents, many of which pertain to governance.

NancyOnNorwalk looked at Rilling’s personal Facebook page Thursday evening and found numerous lighthearted posts, including announcements that Rilling was on Sheffield Island. A citizen had posted complaints about beach conditions, drawing a slew of comments in agreement; Rilling had not responded. NancyOnNorwalk scrolled down the page and could not find any incidences where Rilling had posted about a city issue.

A second review of the page on Friday morning found one instance, in December 2017, when Rilling responded to a complaint about snow piles obstructing handicapped parking in a shopping center.  Bekah Cramer accused Rilling of ignoring the problem, and her post alleged that Rilling untagged himself and blocked someone for raising the issue.  Rilling replied that he did not untag himself or block anyone, and also wrote that he notified city personnel and learned they were “already taking care of the problem.”

Smirniotopoulos, who has been a vocal critic of Rilling and his administration, suggested that maybe she should contact the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) due to what she called “this problem in Norwalk.” She’s also been blocked by Chief of Staff Laoise King, Planning Commissioner Michael Mushak and Board of Education member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell, she said.

The writer of this article has also blocked Smirniotopoulos on Facebook.  Smirniotopoulos violated the NoN comments policy numerous times and was banned from the comments section more than a year ago, after multiple warnings. Despite the ban, she has continued to attempt commenting on the site, in violation of the comment policy.  She has charged that the ban shows favoritism towards the current City administration; the overwhelming majority of reader comments that appear on NoN are critical of city officials.

Rilling said he blocked Smirniotopoulos because she’s used profanity.  “That is offensive to me,” he said.  She’s also used “terms that are offensive and should be highly offensive to anybody” when referring to City staff.

Recently, Smirniotopoulos opened an email to Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeffry Spahr with the words, “Dear Motherf—–,” after he revealed to NoN that the State Freedom of Information Commission had rejected all three of Smirniotopoulos’ complaints against city officials.  Spahr also opined to NoN that it was “odd” that she sent him emails under the name “Lola Falana.”

“It’s unfortunate,” Rilling said. “I have no problems, I’ve never found a need to block anybody. I get lots of criticism, my Facebook page and other places. And I take that with a grain of salt that goes with the territory, not everybody is going to be happy all the time. They have a right to criticize, they have a right to make their feelings known. But there’s a limit. And when you start using terms that are offensive, I think that kind of is the limit.”

27 comments

Bryan Meek July 12, 2019 at 5:36 am

Refunding of debt is as old as the selling of paper, going back before Adam Smith.

I’m more interested in hearing about the controls that have been put in place to make sure $900,000 doesn’t get wired off to China. Are we ever going to hear about these?

Still the refinancing measure underscores how cheap debt is right now and why the city should invest in its schools now and not wait until interest rates go up.

Milly July 12, 2019 at 6:06 am

I cannot believe there were times the line getting into the beach went all the way back to Marvin School. I would like to know the dates that happened. And I know you cannot keep people from coming to the beach but you can limit out of towners – other towns do. Plus with this system someone could drive a van in unload a bunch of people and drive out. Before you had to walk in.

Milly July 12, 2019 at 6:26 am

The changes at the beach were inaccurate from the beginning. First the city said it eliminted having to go to city hall for the pass – its been years that you can print that pass from any computer ( and you still need that pass to go to yard waste site especially since the city does no yard pick ups all summer long). Then they tried to equate paying $180,000 to the company to catch cars that did not pay was the same as the $178,000 seasonal budget – except the people who use to man the gate did not make $178,000.
The city is making up reasons to justify making an unnecessary expensive change to beach entrance.

M Murray July 12, 2019 at 6:36 am

You knew it wasn’t going to go well when you got LAZ parking involved. Look what it has already done to parking in the City. They are a for profit business that doesn’t care if they mis-ticket people, and automatically deny appeals even with proof of their error. Their interest is not it making the situation better for the City or it’s citizens better. LAZ is interested in profits. The city loses parking revenue to LAZ parking.

Al Bore July 12, 2019 at 8:00 am

Now the beach is less accessible to residents since the new system is in place. Never before did we have over crowding at the beach as we now do. Norwalk has very few good things left the beach being one good thing and it is often closed to residents. I went to the concert Wednesday and could not park. Over crowded seems to be what Norwalk is becoming due to giant apart buildings, lots of traffic, and a poorly managed city that can’t handle it. Quality of life in Norwalk has greatly diminished as a result of over crowding. The Norwalk property values will attest to all the above.

Sue Haynie July 12, 2019 at 8:32 am

Rilling comments on the beach issues ….blah, blah , blah, few wrinkles,.. blah , blah…Oh well..blah, blah… we’ll fix next year. A real leader, someone looking out for Norwalk Residents and Norwalk Quality of Life would have said ‘we’ll look at best practice in our neighboring beach communities (that don’t have these problems) and aim to replicate them on our beach next year because taking care of Norwalk is my job!

VOTE LISA. Unlike Rilling, Lisa will fight for Norwalk.

Tobias July 12, 2019 at 9:09 am

Just like the self check out lanes at stores, you’re banking on the honesty of people… what I want to know is how much they chase the unpaid tickets of those who come and utilize the beach without paying? When the lot is full and if the LAZy parking attendants actually “catch” them, what is the action taken to pursue this “revenue”? I would imagine in State ticketed cars could be more easily chased but out of state cars could take months or years if I base the process on something like NY chasing my plate from goingnover a bridge without EZ pass… and I’m sure LAZy parking doesn’t have as much reach to pursue. Any light on this would be welcomed as I still think a person at the gate saying “Turn around” is still a more effective policy… even if they aren’t taking money (and we’re they really pocketing cash as people much as some people accuse them of, which was one of the reasons I was given for this new system?)

Ken Williams July 12, 2019 at 9:10 am

. . . seeing, reading and hearing all this banter about overcrowding on the beaches (and the towns) is a gentle reminder that it’s not just “mean people suck” but “people suck” . . .

E July 12, 2019 at 9:41 am

The beach issue is a sort of another canary in the coal mine. Overcrowding, lack of appropriate systems – and no common sense checks on our capacity. We would not need extra police if the gatehouse was still there. Please put it back. The word is definitely out that the gatehouse is gone. Those dedicated people at the gatehouse were more than a ‘check-in” stand. They were the best true welcome to our park and shoreline and yes, an effective deterrent for those who would game the entrance fees. Also, they were not ‘expensive.’ The word clearly has gotten out that Calf Pasture can now be gamed. So now added expenses placing more police at our beach…to try and implement a system that by its design will be difficult and costly to work. Yikes. Also – must make a note of this – the sand quality has seriously deteriorated ever since Sandy. With all that $$ the city received, nothing went to rehabilitating the sand itself? Much was washed onto the lawn and lost, and then bulldozers scraped tons of dirt back onto beach along with some of the sand. No new sand. No sifters (there used to be one) only a ‘rake’ machine. So now and for the past few years other than right in front of the snack bar changing houses and swings, etc, the beach is rocky and hard, and often with dirt mixed in so that dirt and painful burr weeds are growing down the middle of the beach and much else is now hard like a parking lot – evening walkers/runners have no chance of going barefoot; I know as I used to walk/run there every day after work. Can’t now for the hard/stony/burr filled stretches. Children now more often than not wear shoes on the “sand” anywhere past the water playground – that means over 50% of the beach sand down thru shady beach is hard and sub par, especially compared with any other beach in Fairfield County. Such a frustration given many other beach amenities have improved so much – but – may we agree? The SAND itself is key!

Justin July 12, 2019 at 9:44 am

Is this the first time the beach has had to turn away residents because of a full lot? I’d be interested to know if there are similar precedents in the past where we’ve received a heavy influx of visitors, and how the new parking system held up in comparison to previous high loads.

Christine M July 12, 2019 at 10:02 am

I have *never* seen lines to the beach backed up to Marvin except for maybe 4th of July. I’d like to know how much money Norwalk has made so far this year off the new parking system vs. how much it made last year at this time without it.

Ed July 12, 2019 at 10:10 am

I think we need to put the old system back. You should only enter if your car is registered in Norwalk or if you pay to park. While this cashless system is fine for other lots, the beach is different.

Lisa H July 12, 2019 at 10:43 am

Is it true? Did the city just change their policy of allowing FREE parking at the beach by anyone claiming to be a resident as long as they showed a lease, even though their vehicle is registered elsewhere, to ONLY if they own property in Norwalk, as the article states?

My understanding is that as long as you are a resident (even with an out of town/state registration) you may have your out of town/state vehicle plate number entered into the system for FREE parking at to the beach. Many Norwalk residents who don’t own property in Norwalk or pay vehicle property tax in Norwalk are ‘residents.’ New York does not charge a vehicle property tax, so who can blame them when they can skirt the system and have FREE parking at our beach, parks, and use of our transfer station, while the rest of us pay for it as part of our property and vehicle taxes. The same goes for ‘residents’’ with vehicles registered elsewhere Connecticut who have never changed their address to their current Norwalk residence and don’t own property in Norwalk AND don’t pay their vehicle property tax to Norwalk. I don’t believe the article is factual. Please confirm that you must be a Norwalk property owner as the article states. Prove me wrong.

(Maybe the city can provide us with the actual number vehicles in their system that are allowed FREE parking at our beach, parks, and use of our transfer station, that are not registered to a Norwalk address and do not own other property in Norwalk.

Christine M July 12, 2019 at 11:30 am

Wait a minute: “By City ordinance, a person with a vehicle registered in New York can park for free at Calf Pasture if they own property in Norwalk, he said.”

However, the Parks & Recs website says: “If your vehicle is
not listed on the on the Grand List due to purchasing/leasing a new vehicle you will need to come to the Recreation and Parks office with your current registration showing your Norwalk address.”

So which is it?

Patrick Cooper July 12, 2019 at 11:41 am

Unintended consequences. Typical of the Rilling administration approach – Fire, Aim, I guess we were NOT ready. But this “solution” of just authorizing more police overtime does nothing to solve the problem. Typical.

But something else troubles me. LAZ parking. It’s well known the CEO is a major donor to the CT democratic party – West Hartford connected. National too. I think it was like 60k in 2016 – Larson, Blumenthal, Hillary, etc. Which is his right – and there is nothing wrong with it.

But given the secretive nature of how the McClutchy team got involved in POKO – and how their favored status was only exposed care of the FOI that made public the emails from Sheehan – you have to wonder how many of these “contracts” are tied to political donations? The NoN article this week showed just how much Harry receives from out of town developer’s and law firms – City Carting too – but call me naïve – I thought the selection of service providers was based on merit? Silly me.

Bob Welsh July 12, 2019 at 11:41 am

@Lisa and Christine

The City web site states:

If your vehicle is not listed on the on the grand list due to purchasing/leasing a new vehicle you will need to come to the Recreation and Parks office with your current registration as long at it states your name and Norwalk address. That is all you will need to bring in. If you are a city resident or property owner but your vehicle is not registered in the City of Norwalk you will need to present one of the documents listed below along with the vehicle registration at the Recreation and Parks Office in City Hall, Room 129 to obtain a resident pass from the City of Norwalk. If your vehicle is leased you should be able to complete online as long as the vehicle is registered prior to September 25, 2018. If you cannot then you will need to bring the current registration along with one of the items listed below.

Current vehicle registration along with one of the following:

– Current HOME LEASE or HOME mortgage statement with a Norwalk address

– Current City of Norwalk tax bill or property deed

Please note: The name on the vehicle registration must match the name on the HOME lease, HOME mortgage, Norwalk tax bills, or Norwalk property deed – no exceptions will be made. If your vehicle is a company vehicle you will need to also bring a letter from the company (on company letterhead) stating that you are the sole driver of the vehicle, the vehicle registration along with your proof of norwalk residency in order to obtain your resident pass. All information will need to be brought in yearly as data base is cleared annually.

https://www.norwalkct.org/1311/Resident-Beach-Boat-Passes

I interpret the third sentence, and the information which follows, to mean that if you are a resident, or if you own property in Norwalk and live elsewhere, you can go to City Hall, show a Norwalk lease, mortgage, property tax bill, or deed with your name on it, and a car registered in your name be allowed to park at the beach at no charge for that year, regardless of where the car is registered.

My impression, from many years ago, had been that cars that don’t pay MV tax in Norwalk may not park at the beach for free. I’ve written to the Mayor to ask if there was a change, and if so, when it occurred.

Paul Lanning July 12, 2019 at 12:16 pm

1. The overcrowding is mostly due to the bargain-basement $40 fee. It is made worse by the new no-gatehouse system which enables non-residents to avoid paying altogether.

2. There was no reason to remove the gatehouse. It should be reinstated, and the LAZ contract should be terminated ASAP.

3. Enacting a nominal $2.00 seasonal beach pass fee for Norwalk residents would enable Norwalk to charge non-residents a more appropriate fee. Westport charges $65 with a 100-car limit, and our beach is much better than theirs.

Ron Morris July 12, 2019 at 3:00 pm

Bob Welsh
Maybe you have more pull than the average taxpayer, but I would not expect the Mayor to reply. I have contacted Mayor’s office 3 times in the past 3 years about issues and never once did Rilling have the courtesy to get back to me. Maybe he needs another assistant?

Mitch Adis July 13, 2019 at 7:01 am

According to Mayor Rilling you can’t prevent people from accessing the beach, the only thing you can do is charge for parking. If that is the case, the solution is amazingly simple – Double the fee every year until volume begins to drop. Then you will know you’ve reached the true market price for this asset. Current pricing says we are leaving money on the table!

Bryan Meek July 13, 2019 at 8:34 am

@Mitch. If our government actually were run by supply and demand principles, we’d have much fewer issues to address. For example, there is a massive supply of available residential and commercial real estate rapidly dwindling in valuation because there is no demand. Instead cheaply built apartments are in demand and yet government has decided to subsidize those while raising taxes on the properties with less demand. It’s completely backwards and puts on display a total ignorance of basic economics. That or pure cronyism.

Jason Milligan July 13, 2019 at 5:36 pm

@Nancy & @Bob Welsh,

I will start by saying that you and the board do a great job delivering news and creating robust dialogue. This site is a tremendous benefit to transparency and democracy in Norwalk.

Thank you.

I do have one observation and request I hope you will consider.

I very much like reading Patrick Cooper’s comments. In this thread I did not read his comment the first few times through. I guess I could have missed it but it happens alot.

I feel like Patrick may be in moderation and therefore his comments do not appear until manually approved. It is a shame.

Obviously we cannot know what Patrick may be writing that is removed for violating the comment policy and perhaps there is good reason to monitor Patrick.

I just nearly missed his comment here and I wonder how many others miss comments that arrive late out of moderation since they show up so far back in the thread.

Would you consider posting comments in the order they are made live? Is that possible?

Thanks.

Bob Welsh July 13, 2019 at 11:28 pm

Jason,

Thanks for your kind words.

Posting comments in the order they are made live is an excellent idea. This change would require programming. Unfortunately due to limited funds, we rely on a volunteer programmer, and his time is extremely limited. Therefore it’s highly unlikely that this can happen in the near future. We also rely on a volunteer for comment moderation, and his time is limited too. If everyone simply honors the comment policy, there will be more time for that volunteer to support the award-winning journalism that you value.

Have a great night.

Karen Doyle Lyons July 14, 2019 at 7:52 pm

Donna has also been blocked by me for her vulgar, dirty, and very inappropriate comments. I will be pursuing information as to harassment and defamation. The police have advised me to report her. Her comments are inappropriate for this website.

Her friend Lisa a Briton is also blocked.

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