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Sweitzer explains Enterprise Zone tax abatements; not a tax ‘credit’

Children play in the Ironworks fountain in August, during the SoNo Arts Festival. Ironworks qualified for tax abatements, beginning in 2016, as part of the South Norwalk Enterprise Zone.

Soundview Landing has qualified for Low Income Housing Tax Credits, a federal benefit awarded through the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA).

Correction, 12:37 p.m. Wednesday: Department of Economic and Community Development. Clarification on LIHTC.

NORWALK, Conn. – There have been three Enterprise Zone beneficiaries during the Rilling administration, Mayor Harry Rilling said last week.

Rilling was responding to Republican-endorsed Mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton, who repeatedly criticizes tax breaks, saying at the League of Women Voters’ mayoral forum that “giving away tax credits to developers is not the way to look out for the people who live in this city.”

Enterprise Zone tax abatements are awarded as of right. Tax credits are a different issue. They are awarded on a case-by-case basis; recent recipients include the Wall Street Theater and Soundview Landings, the Washington Village replacement. “POKO” (technically called Wall Street Place) was awarded Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) but weren’t issued because the project wasn’t completed before they expired. The tax credits, which are federal, can be sold to finance a project; tax abatements reduce the taxes owed only on the part of the property that’s been improved. Tax credits don’t involve City money or state funds. 

NancyOnNorwalk emailed Brinton at 5:44 p.m. Monday and asked what she meant by “tax credits,” the Enterprise Zone tax abatements or the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) associated with POKO, the Wall Street Theater and the Washington Village replacement project. A second email was sent at 10:38 p.m. She did not reply.

NancyOnNorwalk has been researching the Enterprise Zone for months; the topic is difficult and confusing. Answers became clear only this month, with a surprising twist coming from the state in early October.

That twist reveals that there are technical inaccuracies in Rilling’s statement: though he cited the SoNo Marriott, Ironworks and the mall, there’s a state-run “Enterprise Zone,” which isn’t tied to the geographic area Norwalkers think of for this program. In the last decade, 15 businesses have qualified, including Pepperidge Farm and Wave Hill Breads, according to the state. Seven of those businesses were awarded the designation and its accompanying tax break since Rilling became Mayor.

Plus, the mall hasn’t actually benefitted yet. Its tax break will be effective in its next tax bill.

The Residence Inn by Marriott, in June. This is a 2019 Enterprise Zone beneficiary.

Again, qualification is “as of right.” Meaning, City officials are obligated to provide the benefit. There are no votes taken on whether a property can get the tax break, no administrative decisions made at any level. If they are in the geographic area, their development qualifies. If they’re a manufacturer, they can qualify anywhere in the city.

“The Enterprise Zone is a federal program authorized by a Norwalk Ordinance passed decades ago. It is also the only tax abatement program in Norwalk. Anyone who builds in the Enterprise Zone automatically receives tax incentives on the value of the improvements. As you’ll see, even as the program dates back decades, it has not been highly utilized in Norwalk,” Norwalk Communications Manager Joshua Morgan explained in early October.

The City ordinance was passed in 1982 and refers strictly to the South Norwalk geographic zone Norwalkers are highly aware of, not the city-wide tax break that’s available.

Morgan and Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King were both caught unawares when told of the state list. So, Morgan’s statement is incorrect, in that it’s not just a matter of building in the zone. Manufacturers qualify anywhere in the city, under certain guidelines, Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Senior Project Manager Susan Sweitzer explained.

Complicated? Yes. Let’s start with:

 

The South Norwalk dollars and sense since 2013

Since Rilling became Mayor, three properties have qualified for the tax abatement through the well-known Enterprise Zone authorized in 1982, according to Morgan and Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King:

  • The Residence Inn by Marriott SoNo (2018 grand list)
  • Ironworks (2016 grand list)
  • The SoNo Collection (just came online)

 

Tax credits apply only to the improvements on the properties.

“The taxes received by the city on the value of the land do not change. Furthermore, the formula varies on property revaluation (2008, 2013, and 2018) and annual mill rates. Tax credits in the Enterprise Zone phase-in on the improvements over seven years,” Morgan explained.

The lobby bar at The Residence Inn by Marriott, in June, shortly after it opened.

“The Residence Inn by Marriott SoNo – 47 South Main Street – just began receiving Enterprise Zone credits. The property is the combination of two parcels,” he explained.

He continued:

“The property was once assessed at less than $1 million, and now has an assessment of $15.6 million.

“From 2007-2013, the two parcels generated roughly $17,000 a year in property taxes – or about $120,000 in total over that time.

“In the first year, the highest tax abatement year, the property owner paid about $48,000 in taxes. In three years, the property taxes will have more than covered what was there previously.

“The taxes are now roughly $282,000 annually. After seven years the property will generate about $2 million, compared to $120,000 over a previous seven year period.”

Let’s move on to Ironworks, the luxury apartment building that replaced the long vacant Norwalk Company derelict across from the Maritime Aquarium.

“Ironworks – 1 North Water Street – began receiving Enterprise Zone credits in 2016. The property was once assessed at $3 million and now has an assessment of nearly $30 million,” Morgan explained.

The SoNo Collection is a hot button issue for some because the property, the last part of Reed Putnam Urban Redevelopment Plan (area), wasn’t originally in the Enterprise Zone area.

A map of the South Norwalk Enterprise Zone.

“It was intentionally left out in the 1980s because it was decided this was going to be this huge, valuable office park and we would have all this revenue and so they didn’t want it in there,” Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Senior Project Manager Susan Sweitzer explained in February. “Needless to say nothing happened.”

The Council, in negotiating changes to the Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) for the parcels, changed the rules on this Enterprise Zone beneficiary. Instead of a gradual increase in taxes, mall owner Brookfield Properties will pay half what is owed in each of its first seven years.

Brookfield, under Norwalk Land Development, paid $538,169.42 in property taxes in August. Another $542,762 is due on Jan. 1. That will make the total 2019 property tax $1,076,338, which includes $9,186 for sewer use.

“Your readers might be interested in knowing that 15 years ago, the dozens of parcels that now make up the SoNo Collection generated about $200,000 in taxes, and this year, the mall’s tax bill (just real estate, no personal property included for the in-line stores) is just over $1 million,” Morgan wrote.

Although a 2017 press release said the mall would generate $2.5 million in tax revenue yearly over its first seven years, the actual dollar figure depends on a tax assessment that is currently underway and on the mill rate that will be set by the Council next Spring, King said Saturday. The $1 million bill for 2019 does not include an abatement.

The customary incremental abatement is:

  • First year, 100% deferment
  • Second year, 100% deferment
  • Third year, 50% deferment
  • Fourth year, 40% deferment
  • Fifth year, 30% deferment
  • Sixth year, 20% deferment
  • Seventh year, 10% deferment

 

 

City-wide

The state’s website explains that the first step for a business to qualify for Enterprise Zone benefits is to apply to the Connecticut Department of  Economic and Community Development (DECD). DECD then issues a Certificate of Eligibility.

Early this month, NancyOnNorwalk asked DECD for a list of Norwalk businesses that have been approved for Enterprise Zone benefits, going back a decade. This list was furnished:

  • 2009: CT. Powder Coating LLC, 1 Merritt St. (Landlord: Bergie LLC)
  • 2009: E C Scott Group, LLC, 129 Woodward Ave. (Landlord: A. Ernest Bothwell and Jean Bothwell)
  • 2009: Wusthof-Trident of America, Inc., 355 Wilson Ave. (Landlord: 333 Wilson, LLC)
  • 2010: Ola! Foods, LLC, 155 Woodward Ave. (Landlord: 155 Woodward Avenue Associates, LLC)
  • 2011: New England Bread Company, LLC, d/b/a Wave Hill Breads, 30 High St. (Landlord: Peter Bjernestad)
  • 2012: Ola! Foods, LLC, 155 Woodward Ave. (Landlord: Baywater Properties LLC)
  • 2012: Pepperidge Farm, Inc., 595 Westport Ave. (Landlord: Pepperidge Farm, Inc.)
  • 2012: Van Dyk Baler Corp., 360 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive (Landlord: United Properties North, LLC)
  • 2013: Nola Express (USA), Inc., 605 West Ave. (Landlord: 340 Wilson Avenue, LLC)
  • 2013: Space Optimization Solutions LLC d/b/a Closet &Storage concepts, 356 Ely Ave. (Landlord: Elyglen LLC)
  • 2015: Connecticut Tick Control, LLC, 15 Chapel St. (Landlord: 15 Chapel Street, LLC)
  • 2015: Crossroad, LLC d/b/a Kelly’s Four Plus, LLC, 155 Woodward Ave. (Landlord: Baywater Properties, LLC)
  • 2016: Tick Box Technology, 15 Chapel St. (Landlord: 15 Chapel Street, LLC)
  • 2016: ETOUCHES, Inc., 13 Marshall St. (Landlord: H.O. & H.E. Properties, LLC)
  • 2016: Norwalk Glass Company, Inc., 4 Testa Place (Landlord: Jes-Mar Associates, LLC)
  • 2016: The 1777 Company, LLC, 87-97 Water St. (Landlord: SoNo Square Associates, LLC c/o David Adam Realty, Inc.)
  • 2017: International Artisan Baking Co., LLC, d/b/a Wave Hill Breads, 30 High St. (No landlord listed)

 

As you can see, this is a completely different list from the one provided by Morgan and King. Some of the businesses are well out of the South Norwalk Enterprise Zone. Morgan and King were caught flat-footed, without an explanation.

About two weeks ago, Sweitzer said the list looks to be correct.

The view from the Residence Inn by Marriott.

“There are actually two categories of eligible abatements,” she said, explaining that a manufacturer, whether big or small, or certain businesses that support manufacturing can qualify anywhere in the city. The state does not issue certificates for the other type of Enterprise Zone beneficiary, the businesses within the geographic zone defined by the Council in 1982.

Manufacturers that qualify get an 80% abatement personal property and real estate for five years. Yes, this costs Norwalk “the full value taxes,” Sweitzer said. “The program is intended to do two things: encourage relocation into Enterprise Zones and to encourage … the creation of real estate investment and job. And so, there is real value there – and (the tax breaks) go away. They’re not in perpetuity. So the cost to the city is defined as short term for a longer term benefit.”

As for the “zone” everyone talks about, “inside the boundary, if you make an investment in that property that triggers a reassessment,” Sweitzer explained. “And then the tax abatement only applies to the increased value that you’ve created for that property. That’s where you’ll find the hotel and some of the residential properties qualified in the zone only as a result of their investments.”

 

Geographic benefits going back a decade

NancyOnNorwalk originally asked City officials for Enterprise Zone beneficiaries going back 10 years.  There’s only one addition to the list provided above: an Ely Avenue housing project that dates to 2010.

“The Ely Avenue project – 310 Ely Avenue Units, A-H – began receiving Enterprise Zone credits in 2010 after it was built,” Morgan wrote. “Previously, the parcel was vacant and the land generated about $2,500 annually in taxes. Over the course of the seven year phase-in, the value of the tax abatements totaled roughly $49,000. Now, the units bring in more than $25,000 in annual property taxes.”

310 Ely Ave.

This is a project that brought the Redevelopment Agency bad publicity: the agency was forced to buy five of the eight affordable housing units from the developer and then resell them, marketing them for $25,000 less than the $220,000 price the agency paid for them, according to a 2013 story in The Hour.

The City’s website shows that at least one sold for a bigger loss than implied by that story, as unit C went for $175,000.

Then-Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan is nevertheless quoted by The Hour as calling the project a success. “It’s met the intended purpose, which was to provide a level of affordable housing,” Sheehan said. “Unfortunately, it ran into the recession and marketing condominiums in the height of the recession proved difficult…. At the end of the day, it’s an improvement to the neighborhood and it is contributing to the inventory of housing options that are unavailable to folks that have moderate incomes.”

 

‘It doesn’t make sense’

Enterprise Zone tax abatements “don’t make sense” for most residential developments due to the income guidelines, Sweitzer said in February. “It only takes one unit to be out of compliance with the income guidelines, and then the whole project gets cancelled out.”

State statute mandates that if an Enterprise Zone apartment or condo that is receiving tax abatements is rented or sold to someone making 200% or more of the area median income then the abatement is cancelled.

EZ Residential restrictions

Sweitzer explained, “You have to commit that you’re going to keep the program for the seven years and comply with the income guidelines, all of the units for seven years. Most developers find that is not worth it. Who wants to do that?”

Norwalk Enterprise Zone brochure excerpt outdated items crossed out

24 comments

Sue Haynie October 29, 2019 at 6:36 am

Excellent reporting from NON, investigative journalism, kudos.

Interesting that the Asst Mayor and Communication Director spoke for Rilling, the man running for Mayor.

POKO, smack in the center of Norwalk’s urban core, a defining location, is the elephant in the room.

With POKO, it’s not just huge property tax credits. It’s also that Norwalk taxpayers will subsidize a 101 unit apartment building with low-income and affordable-income mostly 2- and 3-bedroom units for decades. It’s a student magnet for a school system that is already being asked too much of.

The POKO parking lot mess happened under Rilling’s watch because no one was paying attention. The library parking lot mess happened under Rilling’s watch because no one was paying attention. Norwalk can’t afford another two years of this type of leadership.

Tommy October 29, 2019 at 6:53 am

LIHTC’s (Low Income Tax Credits) are Federal tax credits and have nothing to do with real estate tax credits. They allow a dollar for dollar deduction on your Federal income taxes. That is why they are so valuable, but have zero impact on the real estate taxes of a property.

Ernie DesRochers October 29, 2019 at 7:31 am

Well written and informative piece. Educating the public is important. Still does not answer the question of why the Mayor and the RDA want to use POKO as the centerpiece of redevelopment of Wall Street. 100% Low income housing? Fee driven for the developer and a burden on tax payers for a generation. You would think that after 60 years of failure they could come up with something more game changing like say an Arts District with artists lofts and the like.

Laoise King October 29, 2019 at 7:48 am

Hi Nancy,

Just to clarify. I was under the impression you were asking about “tax credits” which apply to “developers” since that has been the contentious issue raised by Lisa Brinton. The manufacturer tax abatement is authorized by the state (folks apply to them for a certificate) and is unrelated to “development”.

As you note – it is a very complicated topic. The mayor’s statement is accurate in that his administration has not authorized any tax abatements. The only “tax credits” for “developers” are the ones Josh cited – Iron Works, the SoNo Hotel, and for next fiscal year – the mall. Also as you noted these were as of right meaning the projects qualified automatically under the ordnance passed in the early 80s.

Two additional points – 1. tax abatements were addressed in the LDA for the mall. The payment stream was adjusted so the property would pay 50% of the property tax on the improvements for the full seven years rather than the codified schedule of zero for the first two years and an increasing scale for the following five. The amount of the abatement is the same – the revenue flow is just evened out. 2. There is a tax abatement section in the LDA for Wall Street Place (POKO). That was written in to the original deal, negotiated and agreed to by the Moccia administration.

Hope this helps!

Tod Bryant October 29, 2019 at 9:18 am

I want to clarify some of the issues addressed in this article and some of the comments made by the mayoral candidates. As NON points out, tax credits and tax incentives are state and Federal programs that do not in any way use city tax dollars. It’s a complex issue (as the article underscores). It took two years and an MA in historic preservation for me to begin to understand them. I am currently involved in fifteen State or Federal these Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit (HRTC) projects around the state that are either completed or in process. Four of them are in Norwalk, including the Smilow Life Center. These programs only apply to buildings listed in the State or National Registers of Historic Places and they are administered by the State of Connecticut or the National Park Service. They do not involve local taxes in any way. The only impact locally is to increase the Grand List when the building goes back on the tax rolls with the incentivized improvements. The Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) is a federal program that can be combined with the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit or used on its own for new construction. The process of combining the LIHTC with the HRTC was the subject of my master’s
thesis. The LIHTC does not involve local taxes. These state and federal programs exist to encourage the reuse of historic buildings and the preservation of local historic character. The HRTC is intended to level the playing field between rehabilitation and new construction and has proven to be extremely effective. The LIHTC is intended to fill the gap between market rate and affordable housing. Both programs create jobs and local tax dollars. That neither candidate explains it clearly is not surprising, but Lisa Brinton’s claim that these credits are siphoning off Norwalk tax dollars is wildly off base and completely inaccurate.

Bryan Meek October 29, 2019 at 10:15 am

Six of one half dozen of the other. A city on the rise shouldn’t have to sweeten the pot. Investments should be lining up without home owning taxpayers having to grease the skids.

What’s up next debating taxes versus fees?

Bill Nightingale October 29, 2019 at 12:59 pm

Great reporting! Thank you NoN!

310 Ely Ave is just one of the epic failures by the Redevelopment Agency that I have often referred to on this site. Pretty sure I was the only resident who spoke out against it during its sneaky approval process.

But the South Norwalk enterprise zone is maybe their most epic failure. EZs are nonsense. We should absolutely do away with them. Level the playing field. Stop the tax abatements. And above all, abolish the Redevelopment Agency.

Isabelle Hargrove October 29, 2019 at 2:07 pm

Very complex issues indeed. That the mayor’s staff is caught flat-footed is unfortunate. It goes to the essence of this campaign and the choice Norwalkers have.

As Brinton repeatedly says, land is our most precious asset and where the city draws nearly 90% of its revenues. Until we have a mayor and an administration who takes land, deals, and negotiations as their utmost priority, we will continue to leave money on the table and expect taxpayers to foot the bill.

Tax incentives and programs will always be a part of the equation. What is paramount is to get a professional administration who is astute and knowledgable enough to play in the big league. We no longer are a small New England town, we are rapidly changing and the 6th largest city in CT. We must be run accordingly.

Lisa Brinton understands this and has spent years working with c-suite executives from multi-national corporations. I want her representing my interest at the negotiation table.

Michael McGuire October 29, 2019 at 2:32 pm

@ Tommy, Laoisa and Tod,

You make valid points. But regardless there is still a 15 year tax abatement/reduction/call it what you will, baked into POKO deal which specifically reduces the “local” real estate taxes generated from this project.

The real estate taxes for POKO, as planned, are capped at ~ $175,000 per year via a PILOT (Payment In Lieu of Taxes) Program. A market rate project would generate much higher real estate taxes, somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 to 500 percent higher.

So, as planned this project does impact our “local” taxes.

Maybe you guys can shed some light on why this Administration wanted to promote a new special “Tax Incentive” for the Wall-West Ave plan earlier this year. Thankfully this never went through was we were able to stop it in its tracks by exposing its “big developer” bias.

@ NoN – love the in-depth reporting. Keep shining the light!

Mike Mushak October 29, 2019 at 2:32 pm

Thank you Nancy on Norwalk for this excellent reporting!

There goes yet another leg of the divisive platform of false narratives Lisa was once standing on to attack Mayor Rilling.

Wouldn’t you know, Mayor Rilling has not handed out tax credits like candy to developers as she has always claimed!

And renters are not a burden on single family homeowners (they pay more in taxes it turns out and require less services), taxes have not exploded as Lisa and her supporters have been claiming but in fact they have decreased, and our great city isn’t being destroyed by smart growth near transit hubs.

The truth is our downtowns are coming back as the vibrant destinations and job creators for small businesses and corporations like they once were, as our grand list increases and schools and infrastructure are being rebuilt after decades of neglect.

So, what is left for Lisa to run on? Fumes from her year-long divisive campaign full of false narratives about Norwalk won’t be enough I’m afraid.

Vote Row A Democrat on November 5th!

Bryan Meek October 29, 2019 at 4:49 pm

$900,000 walked out of city hall and taxpayers never had any accountability or explanation about corrections to internal controls. The fired assessor’s name was on the website almost three months until yesterday. I’m sure the plaintiffs in the 400 lawsuits against our botched reval are going to have a field day with that fact. Saying everything is rosy and pretending that millennials are going to ride their bikes to Stews to get groceries is not a solution to the bone crushing traffic this administration has created along with a few flush with our cash developers. Our cash, meaning those who pay state and federal taxes that are so easily dismissed here.

Jason Milligan October 29, 2019 at 7:34 pm

How quickly we forget about the Innovation District that Harry and Tim tried to ram through.

They tried and ordinance.

They tried as part of the Redevelopment Plan.

Harry and Tim wanted the “tool in the toolbelt.”

The tool being TAX CREDITS!!

My god did the want the abilityvto dole out the tax credits tontheir cronies.

It is laughable to hear them say there are no tax credits.

POKO!!

Discala told us Head of Harbor North will not be built without tax credits.

The Mall!

Waypointe had piles of tax payer cash dumped inyo it over the years especially when Seligson owned it.

The recent attempt for this administration to distance themselves from tax credits is laughable.

Tommy October 29, 2019 at 8:33 pm

Hey Vetare- Math. 1+1=2. Lower Mill Rate =’s lower taxes. Lower Mill Rate =’s higher grand list. Math.

Isabelle Hargrove October 29, 2019 at 8:49 pm

@Jason Milligan, good point. What a difference from 6 months ago when no one seemed to scare this administration from ramming their agenda through, except crowds with pitchforks.

Again today at the chamber debate, Mayor Rilling was so snug and dismissive of Ms. Brinton. It was cringe-worthy. Very similar to his derogatory comment last summer to the governor “who would want HER advice”.

However, it is undeniable that Brinton has defined this campaign and its issues. Rilling, who still recently denied black-market rentals, traffic, and increased enrollments were realities impacting our city, has been forced to admit otherwise as even The Hour could no longer avoid posting these stories on their front page.

Tax credits, lost revenues, lack of infrastructure planning to support the insatiable thirst for more fortress apartments, the snubbing of small businesses, job loss, out of control third party agencies (parking, RDA). All these stories, short ago swept under the rugs of city hall, are now busted open by this dynamic, “inconvenient” woman.

Residents have found a hero. Norwalk has found a leader who can see the issues, openly discuss them and bring a more balanced point-of-view on economic growth as well as an unwavering determination to bring revenues to our city.

I choose her, proudly! And call me crazy, but I think Norwalk might too…

Tommy October 29, 2019 at 10:46 pm

Btw Vetare, your home value went up by $50k this year and your RE taxes went down!! Its all online so refrain from making hypocritical comments when the facts are easily available!! Especially if you want to be a sheriff.

Debora Goldstein October 29, 2019 at 11:22 pm

All of which begs the question. If Norwalk is the “hot” city, then why are the only projects that have converted from hole in the ground to built the ones that either required tax incentives (whether abatements, federal, LIHTC, enterprise, etc) or zoning amendments?

Ron Morris October 30, 2019 at 12:13 am

Scott Vetare
Saying home values have decreased is simply fake news. Please show some evidence to your claim

Tommy October 30, 2019 at 2:06 am

Debora- it is simple. It’s because while the mill rate went down it is still disproportionate between residential and commercial collections. Most cities have a rate for residential and a rate for commercial and also a 5 year phase in after a revaluation. If a 600 square foot apartment is paying $4000 a year in taxes, as is the case in Norwalk, it makes smart money go to places that are more equitably balanced between residential and commercial. But instead, the rhetoric is that real estate investors are making a windfall, are being given priveledged opportunities and it is all on the back of Norwalk taxpayers. Unfortunately this is the farthest from the truth. The fact is that if one chooses to invest in a commercial endeavor in Norwalk, the process is onerous, the returns are diluted and the capital investment is generally unappreciated/thrown in ones face. That is the reality.

Debora Goldstein October 30, 2019 at 7:19 am

The mill rate is a calculated figure. Basically, a funtion of two factors. Assessed value of all proprty inn the city and price tag for the city’s operations and debt (less grants).

If you believe commercial property is overassessed, and hundreds of others do, as they are appealing, then the Mayor’s claim, in this election year following a five year assessment, that most residential property has had a decrease in property taxes may be a headline that goes away next budget season.

Bryan Meek October 30, 2019 at 8:04 am

A home in my neighborhood just sold for 80% of its revaluation. Sales of Norwalk homes are down 9% year over year. Facts matter, not the bogus revaluation and temporary shifting of property tax liability from some homeowners to commercial properties. Its all going to come back and its going to run up some hefty legal bills at the same time. We won’t know the full damage done for several years. Good news, is we have a solid chance at ending this nonsense next week. The city needs real restructuring, not empire building.

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