NORWALK, Conn. — Given the historically low salaries and small pool of potential applicants, Norwalk faces an uphill battle in its search for qualified tax assessors to fill the vacancies left by Michael Stewart and Bill O’Brien, according to a pair of local professionals familiar with the field.
Successful candidates will also have their work cut out for them, due in large part to the number of property owners looking to challenge their new valuations within the narrow window of time the state provides, they said. In addition, there are deadlines looming for the new Grand List.
“When you’re down two of your senior people, obviously, that’s a blow,” Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz said. “So, we’re doing the best we can, which is ‘let’s get good qualified people who could give us part time here-part time there’ to get us to the Grand List. And at the same time, we’re expanding the search for permanent replacements.”
Mayor Harry Rilling announced in late August the resignations of Norwalk Tax Assessor Stewart and Assistant Tax Assessor O’Brien.
Real estate appraiser Nora King said she applauded the move, as the “assessor’s office needs total transformation.”
“We have a city that relies too heavily on the residential homeowners for their revenue,” she wrote earlier this month. “The commercial has been offset for decades in Norwalk. So, the tax assessor they hire needs to really understand how to through mass appraisal really value commercial and residential fairly. I also think the next assessor needs to be a strong communicator.”
Attorney Adam Blank, who estimates he spends half his professional life in assessment appeals, added, “Clients are a bit more frustrated with this process currently because Norwalk is trying to slow down the resolution of these appeals until they have at least a temporary assessor in place (and I don’t fault the City for that).”
In March, Stewart told Rilling and the Board of Estimate and Taxation that the Board of Assessment Appeals had refused to hear the pleas of 260 commercial property owners whose properties are assessed at more than $1 million, on the results of the 2018 revaluation. Rilling ordered Stewart to inform the owners that they could file lawsuits and the City would go through pre-trial conference to try to informally settle the issues.
Norwalk Communications Manager Joshua Morgan said last month it was actually about 280 commercial properties assessed at more than $1 million. “To date, 380 appeals have been filed with the Superior Court and some pre-trial hearings scheduled. Approximately 25 appeals have been filed on one- and two-family homes and residential land.”
The process, Blank said, is the same in every community: “an informal hearing, a formal hearing at the Board of Assessment Appeals, an appeal to Court, a settlement conference in New Britain, and then a settlement or trial.”
Without a temporary assessor in place, “it’s a double whammy,” Blank said, because “these cases are almost always settled in a pretrial with Judge Levine in New Britain. However, that judge just retired and that has both slowed, and created uncertainty, as to how smoothly and quickly tax appeal cases will be resolved.”
“My clients, and my sense from other taxpayers whom I don’t represent, is that there is a lot of resentment over massive assessment increases, particularly to commercial properties in South Norwalk, Wall/West and for apartment buildings Citywide. It’s not clear yet whether those increases were generally accurate with just some outliers or whether it was just generally too high. Even if the new values are reflective of market value, when you double or triple a building’s taxes in a single year it makes it very difficult to lease vacant space or hold on to existing tenants (if taxes are passed on to the tenant) and it creates issues for property owners with their lenders because they can’t absorb or pass on to tenants such massive increases in a single year and they can start to default on mortgage covenants. I think many of my clients would have liked it if the City had phased in the reval and given people a chance to adapt to the higher taxes.”
‘The economy is rebounding’
This week, Rilling wrote:
“We are currently accepting applications for the positions of Tax Assessor and Assistant Tax Assessor. We have also been speaking with current and retired Tax Assessors to assist us on a part-time basis. In the interim, Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz is overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Assessor’s office.
“The tax appeal and hearing process is consistent across Connecticut municipalities. We have no intention of delaying that process or slowing down resolutions. In addition to the Assessor’s office, we rely heavily on the Corporation Counsel’s office during these hearings. It should also be noted that Michael Stewart has agreed to make himself available as-needed during the settlement and appeals process while we hire new staff.”
“It is critical that the revaluation be impartial. We have committed to ensuring fairness throughout the entire process – from start to finish. Tyler Technologies is one of 11 companies in the state that is certified in both Real and Personal Property revaluation. They no doubt have expertise in this area.
“The previous revaluations occurred in 2008 before the Great Recession and then again in 2013 before we fully recovered. It’s good news the economy is rebounding! Property values went up across the board in Norwalk, with a larger increase seen in commercial properties. Although residential properties also increased, many homeowners saw a flat or reduced tax bill as a result of our conservative budgeting which helped lower the mill rate.”
Who’s doing the assessments?
Asked who is doing the assessments, Dachowitz said, “That’s an interesting point. Norwalk has retained a retired assessor from Westport to work part-time during the transition and that person had his first meeting with the team on Thursday. So he is figuring out where we are (and) determining where we need assistance. And he is talking to people who could also give us part-time capability to help get things done.”
The Grand List deadline is Oct. 1, but it’s “really Jan. 31. You can make adjustments,” Dachowitz said.
“Each year, the City must report the Grand List to the state Office of Policy and Management by May 1,” Morgan said in an email.
State Statute says the BAA must conclude its hearings “by March 31 or April 30.”
Stewart “agreed to give us a certain number of days of help to transition,” Dachowitz said. “So that will help both the leaders as well as the team members. … Bill O’Brien said his phone is available to me to talk and you know, ‘you have a question on a specific issue.’ So he’s also helping.”
Finding ‘good old boys’?
Stewart was tax assessor from Sept. 12, 2007 to Aug. 30, Morgan said. The position was vacant for three months before he began work.
The vacancy was longer in O’Brien’s case. David Stannard left the job on June 30, 2010, after 19 months, and O’Brien replaced him on Dec. 12, 2011.
“Many appraisers do not want to be assessors due to the low pay for these positions,” King wrote. “So, I do think it will take a while.”
“Connecticut Assessors and their assistants are all members of the Connecticut Association of Assessing Officers. This Association does regular newsletters and publishes on its website and newsletters all vacancies. I’m sure Norwalk’s vacancies are (or will be) posted,” Blank wrote.
But, “The pool of potential applicants for Norwalk realistically is quite small and consists only of current Assessors or assistant assessors in Connecticut or in another state,” he continued. “However, all of the assessment laws that an assessor would apply (including exemptions, etc.) are Connecticut specific and there would be a steep learning curve if someone was brought in from out-of-state.”
“Many of the great assessors in other parts of CT will not want to leave their jobs to commute into Fairfield County, where the cost of living is much higher,” King wrote. “The talented appraisers who will go in-house to become assessors are usually ones looking for a more 9 to 5 job, want to slow down with running their own business or they just want a different challenge. Most credentialed appraisers typically won’t give up their independence and the ability to earn higher wages to become assessors.”
She continued, “The mistake Norwalk makes is we usually look for the good old boys that the officials get along with and that really doesn’t support bringing in strong talent. I have heard some names being tossed around, but personally I haven’t been impressed with some of the suggestions. The people that I think would do an awesome job – most likely won’t leave their existing positions.”
Blank said, “I’m sure anyone that might be interested in taking on a position in Connecticut will certainly be aware of the openings. Hopefully, there are some good candidates out there and the City can get a couple good hires. However, as it is a small pool of talent, it could be that a long term temporary assessor is put in place. I’ve provided a few suggestions of retired assessors to the Mayor’s office and I know they are actively looking to get one or more temporary people put in place.”
‘Assessment skills more important’ than knowing state laws
“We have drafted job specs for assessor and deputy assessor,” Dachowitz said Thursday. Director of Personnel and Labor Relations Ray Burney has been on two weeks vacation and now that he’s expected back, he will guide the Finance Department on where to post the job opportunity.
“We have talked about a nationwide search just because within Connecticut, there’s just such a difficult time getting people and I’ve been informed that if someone is a qualified assessor in another state, and willing to relocate here, they can learn the state laws, and they have even a certain amount of time according to state law to get up to speed,” Dachowitz said. “But the assessment skills (are) more important than knowing the Connecticut law.”
Told that some feel the search will be challenging, Dachowitz said, “What’s hard is the supply-demand imbalance. There are not enough qualified people who want to move and change from the positions they already have. The ones who are retired, said ‘I’ve had enough.’ We’re talking to them about working with us part time to help in a transition. And then at the same time, we have to conduct a search. And … it’s not easy. So therefore, you have to expand your scope and we’ll come up with creative ways to get people in.”