NORWALK, Conn. – Beefing up the Norwalk Tax Assessor’s Office would likely bring in more revenue, Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz said Thursday.
Dachowitz, in the wake of the departure of Norwalk’s tax assessment leadership nearly three months ago, said “weaknesses” had been found in the department by Westport Tax Assessor Paul Friia, who has been working with Norwalk to “stabilize” the situation and produce a Grand List. There are good candidates being vetted to take the positions and it’s possible the vacancies will be filled sooner than expected, maybe within a month or two.
Dachowitz was careful to frame his comments in a thoughtful, positive way, but outgoing Common Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) observed “reflections in the way you’re discussing the issues, that the department was screwed up.”
In August, Mayor Harry Rilling announced that Norwalk Tax Assessor Michael Stewart and Assistant Tax Assessor William O’Brien had resigned. “(T)his department is heading in a new direction. These changes provide me with the unique opportunity to transform the Assessor’s office,” Rilling was quoted as saying in a press release. “This department will be more responsive to the public going forward through improved customer service and communication.”
This came on the heels of a controversial property revaluation, resulting in an unusually large numbers of revaluation appeals. Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola, as part of Thursday’s Council Finance Committee discussion, said there are 380 appeals outstanding and characterized the volume as “incredible.”
Although Hempstead told Dachowitz that he didn’t have to respond to the “screwed up” accusation, Dachowitz didn’t shy away, responding, “Let me address that because there are rumors there. There’s a lot stuff floating out there.”
“I’m not an assessor by training. I’ve been learning out of self-defense during this, this period of time,” said Dachowitz, who came on board in April after former Chief Financial Officer Bob Barron’s sudden resignation in January. He went on to explain:
“Assessing is a technical area, and Norwalk in particular, has a bigger challenge, because of the size, the scope, the variety of the properties. We have residential, high-end residential, commercial, industrial, maritime. There are very few assessors who can handle that. There’s a lot of pressure, you still have your time cycles that you have to hit. And there has to be a combination of a technical skill as well as a managerial capacity to run an office. And as we all know, in the city, we have a unionized force. Different people have different skills, different motivations. You have to deal with the hand you’re held because it’s not a private sector where we can make changes more freely.
“So, it takes two types of skills and some people are technically proficient and weak managers. Some are great managers, don’t have the technical skills. So, in particular to be assessor here or a assessor leadership in this city it’s a challenge.
“Historically … the two individuals that left, one was considered a superstar in technical skills. I mean, take the hardest assessment challenge and he’d be the person most people in the state would say, ‘that’s the person you want dealing with that.’ And that was balanced by another individual with other two sets of skills and qualities. So, they were good balance a good team together. They supplemented each other’s weaknesses. And we got through a lot.
“Were they perfect? No. Are there weaknesses in the operation? Yes, as there are in all.”
The one thing the administration didn’t want to do was rush into hiring new tax assessors, Coppola said, explaining that he’d used his private practice connections to line up Friia.
Westport First Selectman Jim Marpe had graciously consented to allowing Friia to work for Norwalk, provided he kept his day job, Coppola said. Friia has been coming to Norwalk late in the afternoon and staying until 8:30 p.m. one or two days a week to handle tax appeal settlement conferences, and also working Saturdays and discussing issues daily by phone.
The Council was considering spending $250,000 on temporary assessment help, including Friia and someone who worked with Tyler Technologies on the latest revaluation, and $30,000 of that has already been spent, Dachowitz explained.
“At the same time, we have identified several candidates for assessor that look very promising. And if things work out well, we will have a new assessor come on board before the time that we anticipated,” Dachowitz said. “…Additionally, it should be pointed out we’ll probably net a positive amount of money, the work that they’re doing is gone through permits and other things that will generate revenues that we wouldn’t have otherwise. So, net-net, it’s positive.”
Friia said that while his main goal has been to compile the Grand List, he’s also been addressing “important issues” and working to “clean up some things so that when a new assessor is hired… we hit the ground running.”
Council member John Igneri (D-District E), who like Hempstead was in his last Council meeting, said he’d had a small renovation done at his house recently. It has been inspected on a Friday afternoon and on Saturday, someone arrived to do an assessment, even before a Certificate of Occupancy was issued.
“So, much more efficient,” he opined, amused.
It’s a “good thing” that there’s so much development in Norwalk, Coppola said. “You have all these building permits, but then you’ve got to actually value them. And so, you know, Norwalk has in comparison to other municipalities in Connecticut, unbelievable, maybe record growth and development. Just valuing them all, for this first year is an incredible task. Most communities wish they had that opportunity, but then we have to do the work.”
Dachowitz and Friia have been finding ways to improve the assessor’s office and keep the city from rushing to find new assessors, Coppola said.
Council member John Kydes (D-District C) asked if maybe a deputy could be hired and supplemented by consultants like Friia, as needed.
“As Mario said, Norwalk is very lucky to have the growth that it has, but the assessor’s office has to capture that growth,” Friia replied. “And because of that so, so much complexity in the types of commercial properties and overall properties that you have, waterfront, you know, every type of commercial property, you need a full staff there. And honestly, I would say you need it more full.”
“The great thing about the assessor’s office, when it’s well staffed, it makes you more money,” Friia said.
Dachowitz suggested that there may be better computer systems available for the assessor’s office. As far as personnel goes, there’s “a whole bunch of combination of factors.”
That includes customer service; “We want to be pleasant, respectful to everyone, but sometimes they have to deliver harsh news. Not everybody reacts well to that. Some people are better at communicating bad news, with a smile,” he said.
“It’s a complex role, which takes a lot of dimensions that I’m only fully appreciating now, but that has informed us as we’ve assessed the candidates that are coming before us,” Dachowitz said. “And we have a unique opportunity because we have two slots open. So instead of saying we need one person who’s the be-all and end-all in all dimensions, we can supplement. Well, if someone has more strengths on this side, maybe the other individual has other strengths.”
Hempstead said Dachowitz would be a great diplomat. After the meeting, he explained, “I noticed overall since the last reval, we gave back a lot of money, several millions of dollars worth of tax appeals. And two, I’ve always heard there’s been a problem with customer service and the reactions over the years. That goes back to the previous Mayor also, so it’s not it’s been more of a long-term issue than a short-term issue.”