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Norwalk Tax Assessors Office shakeup: Rilling promises new direction

From left, Norwalk tax assessors Michael Stewart and Bill O’Brien talk to members of the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA), in April, in City Hall.

Updated, 9:45 p.m.: Comments from Lisa Brinton and Nora King.

NORWALK, Conn. — Dual resignations will allow Mayor Harry Rilling to take the Norwalk Tax Assessor’s Office in a different direction, a press release said Monday.

Norwalk Tax Assessor Michael Stewart and Assistant Tax Assessor William O’Brien have submitted their resignations, the release said. Stewart will be retiring on Friday, while O’Brien will begin work soon in another municipality. O’Brien’s last day was Aug. 9, Norwalk Communications Manager Joshua Morgan added later.

“I typically do not comment on personnel matters, however, I felt it was important to let the public know this department is heading in a new direction. These changes provide me with the unique opportunity to transform the Assessor’s office. This department will be more responsive to the public going forward through improved customer service and communication,” Rilling is quoted as saying in the release.

The timing is right to implement changes given that the 2018 Grand List has been finalized for the Fiscal Year 2019-20 Operating Budget and the subsequent reporting of the Grand List has been submitted to the state Office of Policy and Management, the release said.

This announcement comes on the heels of a controversial property revaluation, resulting in an unusually large numbers of revaluation appeals. The 2019-20 operating budget reported 400 open lawsuits against Norwalk in 2018-19, which Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola attributed to property assessments.

Stewart in March told the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) that 260 commercial property owners have been denied a hearing on their assessment appeals, because the Board of Assessment Appeals (BAA) didn’t have the necessary experience. Rilling said he’d been blindsided by the outcry on decisions he knew nothing about, and ordered Stewart to send out a second set of letters to the aggrieved property owners, informing them that although BAA wouldn’t hear their complaints, the City would go through an “informal process” to resolve the situation without great expense.

“The reval was not botched,” Rilling said in a recent email to NancyOnNorwalk. “I was only concerned about the process and how the Assessors office did not communicate in an open and transparent way leading to confusion.”

Rilling has begun a national search for a new Tax Assessor and Assistant Tax Assessor, the release said. “In the interim, the City is working to bring on a retired tax assessor to oversee the department and be part of the hiring process. Until that time, Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz will be handling the day-to-day operations of the department. Additionally, Mr. Stewart will be available during this transition period to assist as needed.”

“Michael and Bill have worked in municipal government most of their lives, and I thank them for their service to the public,” Rilling is quoted as saying. “I wish Michael well in retirement and Bill the best of luck in the next chapter of his career.”

Real estate appraiser Nora King, a Democratic member of the Planning Commission, has been critical of Stewart. After Monday’s announcement, she slammed Stewart.

“I applaud the Mayor and his team,” she wrote in an email. “The assessor’s office needs total transformation.  The last revaluation demonstrated a lack of understanding for Norwalk.  The Mayor inherited the current system from the previous administration, and I am positive based on Mayor Rilling’s proven ability to create new teams and new departments that he will be able to transform this department.  Neighborhoods and a lack of understanding of certain types of commercial properties really led to so many of the issues this go around.  No one likes taxes but they are a must in life if we want safe cities, clean streets, strong schools and a city that is growing in the right direction. But what is right is fair evaluations.  There will always be those people that will fight them, but if they are fair it creates an environment that supports customer service and equality.  It cost money to fight your taxes and what isn’t fair is when the evaluation is done not equitable and I found many cases this year where the assessor did not understand the neighborhoods and didn’t understand small businesses. The fact that the current assessor felt the need to uphold a federal statue and make small businesses go to court versus having the opportunity to go in and appeal was not right.  That can be very expensive for a small business owner.  I look forward to seeing the transformation and meeting the new team that Mayor Rilling will put in place.”

Republican-endorsed unaffiliated Mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton reacted to the news on Facebook by writing, “Everyone’s fault but Harry’s.”

To NancyOnNorwalk, she wrote, “I wish {Stewart} well.”

17 comments

Joe August 27, 2019 at 12:55 am

We need a revaluation. This isn’t fair. How do senior people get let go, but we keep the results? Sure, those that can afford to go to court did, but what about the thousands of low income minority owners that don’t have the money to fight. They get stuck with the high assessment while the upper privileged class gets to fight in court? How can this be the Democratic party when are letting the poor suffer?

Itsjustme8 August 27, 2019 at 2:13 am

I’ve never been a mayor. I would think having an eye on the process of getting revenue would be an area where I’d never be “blindsided”.

Isabelle Hargrove August 27, 2019 at 8:10 am

Mayor Rilling must have been the only person in town who did not know that the Norwalk tax assessment office had major competency issues and badly needed new leadership.

Local property taxes represent the vast majority of the city’s revenues. How can our chief executive not make that department and process a top priority? Especially considering he had 5 years to prepare.

Was the mayor also not aware of the financial burden property taxes represent for the average homeowner and small businesses? Does he not understand that the average taxpayer cannot afford to hire a lawyer to fight city hall? Shouldn’t we expect our mayor to make our financial well being his priority? A fair and accurate revaluation process should not be too much to ask. And NO, an informal after-the-fact review is not an acceptable answer to an unfairly burdened family, especially when the mayor refuses to take any responsibility for the botched reval or apologize in any way.

Also, how do we expect to attract businesses and investments to Norwalk (except for the ones who get huge tax abatements…) with that level of uncertainty and incompetence?

Norwalk is the 6th largest city in CT. We need a mayor who has the management wherewithal and financial acumen to modernize city hall, instill confidence in the business community, and guarantee taxpayers that their investment in Norwalk and tax burden are a top priority.

John ONeill August 27, 2019 at 8:35 am

I went thru the property tax appeals process. My initial meeting with Tyler Technologies was a complete waste of time. The agent could care less and my preliminary appeal was rejected with no reasons given. The next step was a meeting with the Board of Assessment Appeals. I met with Don Overton, who I had never met before. Don could not have been more pleasant and professional. He really educated me on the process and what I needed to pursue my case. I truly appreciated Don’s patience and support.
I’m not sure how much communication there was between assessor’s office and Tyler Tech, but my meetings with the two groups were night and day as far as caring about my issues.
Another issue I came across in my analysis of home values — In researching 06850 (West Norwalk) and 06853 (Rowayton) I found approx. 100 homes which actually sold during the period. Approx. 10-15% were overvalued by assessor’s office by at least 10% of more, and 10-15% were undervalued by 10% or more (vs. actual selling price) I would think at a minimum they would’ve gotten those homes valued properly. It basically means some property owners are getting discounted property tax bills, and some are paying a premium. More micro analysis needs to be done as Norwalk’s properties are as diverse as our population. Any type of computer algorithm wouldn’t pick up on that.

Jason August 27, 2019 at 9:22 am

The assessment community in Connecticut is very good and very knowledgeable. It’s possible, even probable, that mistakes (perhaps many) were made under Stewart. But the time has clearly come for a change. Here’s hoping that some of the excellent assessors from other towns throw their hats in the ring for the jobs. It isn’t a career that a simple MBA can cover. It’s extremely specialized and needs someone who knows all of the ins and outs of municipal tax assessment. Best of luck to both of them as they pursue their future endeavors.

Nora K King August 27, 2019 at 9:50 am

Jason – great comments. So many others want to turn it political when they don’t understand the process. They also don’t understand the legal barrier that is between city officials like the CC and Mayor’s office and the assessor. They are not allowed to influence etc. The only thing the Mayor can do is really hire the right person for the job. Assessors are protected more than most roles so they cannot be influenced. Now the work begins because they can hire the right leadership in the assessors office.

Bryan Meek August 27, 2019 at 9:58 am

Sleepy little Bethel CT with a population of 10k and lower median household income and property values manages to record their rental data digitally so they can accurately track the rentals and fairly assess properties.

In Norwalk we are still filing on paper for those who bother to comply. We have three paid mouthpieces to tell us how wonderful everything is instead of enforcement officers to get illegal apartments to report their revenues so they can be assessed for taxation fairly. It’s strangling the city and some are just waking up to the fact.

Do you really need 5 years of on the job training to figure out we are too big to be doing things on triplicate paper still?

In the audit world, they refer to “tone at the top” as being one of the most critical factors in their overall assessment of a entity’s condition.

Besides $900,000 walking out of the building and a totally pear shaped valuation of our grand list, giving our beach away, giving parking lots for $1, buying parking lots for 5x market value, there is a common theme of very little regard for city assets and it needs to change.

Bryan Meek August 27, 2019 at 10:07 am

Oh, and who picked Tyler Tech to do the valuation? They are a new entrant in this market. They are a municipal general ledger software company who needed to expand revenues and saw this as an opportunity and we took the bait. Why didn’t we use Vision, like everyone else does? We even use them to store our records, but someone thought better to give the contract to someone experimenting in this field? Just look at their websites. http://www.vgsi.com/ VERSUS. https://www.tylertech.com/ Right from their home pages, one tells you it’s expertise is in appraisals and the other tells you theirs is software.

Sono Resident August 27, 2019 at 10:20 am

Below is the note that I sent to Michael Stewart and William O’Brien back in February regarding an appeal on the assessment on my house. Their response was basically that I was out of luck and should “try again next year”

Good Morning Bill/Michael
I received my Real Estate Assessment Change Notice in the mail late last week. I went online to file my appeal online and was distressed to discover that the date to do so had already passed.

It seems that I was given around 5 business days to file an appeal and unfortunately I was out of town at the beginning of the week so I missed this quite narrow window. When I filed my initial appeal with Tyler Technologies in November, I was told that I would receive a revised assessment by the end of January. I called your office two weeks ago after Jan 31st came and went to check on my re-assessment and was told that “it was in the mail”.

It is underhanded at best to give Homeowners less than a week to file an appeal, especially when I took the time out of my busy calendar to come down to city hall in November and contest the ridiculous ~20% jump in FMV.

Piet Marks August 27, 2019 at 10:39 am

Thank you John ONeil, Jason and Nora for your heads up assessments (No Pun Intended) of the assessment process. Let’s see how the next Evaluation Period works out, now that the whole proces is under revue.

Lisa Brinton August 27, 2019 at 11:10 am

When 85-90% of our city revenue comes from property assessments – we can’t afford to get it wrong. We’ve always known this. Hopefully, a better job is done in five years time. In the meanwhile, lawsuits and the cost of those will play out over the next several years as the appeals make their way through the legal system.

It’s important folks (especially knowledgeable ones on this site) understand our spending trends versus the grand list. We’ve increased the budget 24% in six years. Going forward, Norwalk will need approx. $200,000,000 in grand list growth each year to sustain just a 1% budget increase (assuming a mill rate of .025 – hopefully my decimal is in the right place.) Never mind keeping taxes flat.

In light of state financials, coupled with the various tax credit deals with developments like the mall, Poko, etc. our leadership needs a lesson in economics to make sure all this increased population density with the apartments is paid for. I’m not convinced.

NonPartisan August 28, 2019 at 8:06 pm

The re assessment was based on faulty algorithms This was pointed out to the administration several times and by many people.

The onus was then put on the individual taxpayers to fight the reassessment at a cumulative cost of several hundred thousands of dollars and thousands of wasted man hours.

In addition to the dismissal of the incompetent staff this administration owes an apology to its taxpayers for being so damned disrespectful of the cities taxpayers.

Terrence McNicholas August 29, 2019 at 8:48 am

The whole process was a joke. I happened to be home the day Tyler came to my house to do a “field inspection”

Pick-up truck pulls into the end of my driveway, guy gets out… I walked down to speak with him (thinking he was lost or needed help) He introduced himself from Tyler and explained what he was doing. I told him to let me know if you have any questions. He said no and then left. was at my house for maybe 2 minutes and pulled 5 feet into my driveway! What value did that add to the process? NONE!

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