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Can new tax assessor help Norwalk keep pace with spending?

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Last week, I attended the Common Council meeting when Norwalk’s newest employee, Tax Assessor William Ford, was confirmed.  After welcoming him, I was compelled to share housing issues unchecked for too long.  My hope is he’ll apply his experience from Worcester. Census figures reveal a city with 185,000 residents and only 42 percent owner-occupied housing. Is Norwalk headed in that direction? I think so. How does Worcester fund everything?

Norwalk’s shift in housing stock has been gradual, with a rise in multi-unit rentals, both new and illegal, resulting in a decreased percentage of what was historically and reliably taxed owner-occupied single-family homes.  Demographic shifts, northeast affordability, a struggling state economy, new immigration trends and City Hall policy has resulted in a more densely populated, less affluent population settling into Norwalk, with a need for cheaper housing. City Hall’s reliance on individual landlords, LLCs and real estate trusts for property taxes comes at a time of increasing city costs including headcount, salaries and benefits, school enrollment and infrastructure. 

At the same time, the current administration continues to push for tax credits and subsidized redevelopment, diverting future property tax revenues, while Norwalk struggles with school funding. Taxpayers just received the largest BoE ask in memory:  $14 – $18 million dollars, or 7- 9 percent.  No additional help is expected from the state, except possibly a new, $200 million ‘regional’ high school that taxpayers will initially fund, with 80 percent state reimbursement expected later.  Maybe.

How will Norwalk pay for it all?

Unfortunately, a significant amount of rental housing is NOT reflected in city records, resulting in under reported income or no reporting at all.  Norwalk’s housing requires stricter financial accounting.  Illegal apartments have flourished in homes across the city. In addition to lost revenue, many aren’t up to safety code, creating needless liabilities for the city.

Hopefully, Mr. Ford will clarify if Norwalk’s tax assessment and collection practices have been adapted to our housing shift. I don’t think they have. Homeowners face public shaming and tax lien sales every two years if they fail to pay. Anonymous LLCs or slum landlords don’t appear to face the same level of scrutiny or consequences.  One issue – lost revenue due to Norwalk’s allowance of four-unit rental houses to claim residential versus commercial status and owner occupied up to six units not having to report.  Other cities have tighter classifications and profit and loss accounting measures.  Failure to collect these taxes cannot be understated, considering that 62 percent of our school enrollment consists of low income students, likely residing in this type of housing.  Improved accounting of landlord income is needed. Housing policy and school enrollment costs are linked.

Complicating Norwalk’s future revenue stream is the 2018 Revaluation and whether it was inflated or accurately captured market values.  Currently valued ~ $14 billion, Mr. Ford is facing hundreds of appeals and a record number of commercial lawsuits making their way through the system.  Analysis of approximately 20 major commercial properties valued at ~$2B along the Merritt and West and Connecticut Avenues showed an average increase of 37 percent. What happens to Norwalk’s revenue if major appeals like these are successful?

I won’t belabor the fairness or eroding market consequences of homeowners forced to pick up the slack for multi-unit houses ‘off the books’ or major commercial appeals.  Preliminary 2020-21 budget figures show increased density has brought increased city costs.  Development isn’t keeping up with city spending and individual employee wages are outpacing median household income. The need for additional funding cannot be on the backs of homeowners simply because they’re easier to track. Norwalk has reached a tipping point with school enrollment.  Has the time come for serious discussions about property tax reform and revenue diversification before the homeowner scale tips further?  I think so.  If Mr. Ford brings better assessment practices, that’s a good start, but City Hall needs to start living within its means, and we need to go further.  We need honest conversations about the future direction of Norwalk’s finances.

Lisa Brinton

Norwalk

24 comments

Missy Conrad February 4, 2020 at 8:17 am

Former State Rep Larry Cafero & former CT State Sen Judith Friedman assured the judge after the Sheff vs O’Niell school desegregation case that our CT Legislature would fix the problem. I did read the report from Governor Rowland’s Commission and also the independent report at the same time from the Horton & supporters group. About a decade ago my husband, seeing the dates on both, recycled my copies in a clean-out, but they could be easily obtained. During Mayor Esposito’s term, there was a vote to more regionalize our schools. In our Standardized Metropolitan Statistical Area (with our federal government) of Norwalk & the three W’s, Wilton did vote to join with Norwalk to desegregate our schools. But, Norwalk’s mayor & Common Council declined, stating that we did not “trust” Wilton & that we did not “need” Wilton because our schools were already desegregated. Not much has been done since then- Schools & affordable housing are linked.

Audrey Cozzarin February 4, 2020 at 10:32 am

Thank you, Lisa. It begs the questions many have been asking: “What kind of city do we want to be? What sort of city are we?” I, for one, don’t want Norwalk to turn into another Stamford, nor should Norwalk be so reliant on private property taxes, funding the city on the backs of homeowners, like Bridgeport. Our infrastructure needs improving and there are many other areas that fall under the category of “quality of life” that must influence how the City spends money. I know it’s budget season. I do hope Mr. Ford takes an holistic view of how we are financially operating here in Norwalk.

Thanks again, Lisa, for highlighting this important opportunity to look closely at the above questions: How we define ourselves as a city. It helps how we plan financially.

Adolph Neaderland February 4, 2020 at 11:36 am

Lisa surfaces a critical issue, namely, do the city’s stakeholders fully understand how Norwalk finances it’s operating and invested finances.
Based on our recent election, apparently not.
I must admit that as a reasonably well educated, involved stakeholder, I have no idea What our recent influx of multi story mixed use residential structures has on our tax base.
There never has been a published ROI as a measurement tool, nor, that I know of, a comparable published financial report documenting the glowing verbiage supporting such development.
Norwalk is at a tipping point, transitioning from home ownership with city involved stakeholders to a transient community having little ties to “stakeholdership”, yet having a significant financial impact on the city’s infrastructure.

Adam Blank February 4, 2020 at 3:12 pm

New apartment buildings are taxed at roughly $5,000 per unit. The City spends roughly $11,500 per pupil spending. A new apartment building like Head of the Harbor with 60 units might produce 5 or 6 students. The last numbers I saw were that new developments generated roughly 100 new students based on something like 1,200 units. I heard that P&Z was maybe going to put together a chart with these numbers. This makes apartments very profitable for the City. But, unquestionably, they do add kids and the BOE will need funding for that.

On the other hand, walk by your 60 closest single family home neighbors, I can assure you there will be a lot more than 5 or 6 school aged kids from those houses. And guess what, the median single family home’s tax bill is also just about $5,000 in Norwalk. If you were just looking to cut taxes, you might want to demo all the single family homes in Norwalk. Of course, I would not advocate for that, but the refrain that new apartment buildings are costing Norwalk tax revenue is just not supportable by data.

I do agree with Lisa that illegal apartments are a completely different story and I continue to believe an inexpensive partial fix is to make most streets permit parking only and only provide 1 permit per legal unit. That will force out some of the illegal units. Then add some zoning staff for enforcement and start going street by street identifying the illegal units.

Mike Mushak February 4, 2020 at 5:01 pm

Lisa Brinton continues to push nonsense like she did all last year when she was a candidate for mayor. She’s like a broken record repeating “sky is falling, sky is falling, sky is falling” to the point no one is listening anymore except the usual negative groupies.

Lisa’s many dubious claims are not based not on any accurate data, but on ridiculous assumptions like apartment dwellers are not as “virtuous” as single-family homeowners, and don’t pay their fair share in taxes. Baloney!

On the contrary, apartment dwellers pay more per square foot in property taxes (through their rent) than single family homeowners do, while using much less city services than single family homes do.

In fact, downtown apartment dwellers near transit use 8 times LESS infrastructure per housing unit than single-family suburban houses which are sprawled out along miles of roads needing repaving and plowing, along with miles of utility poles and sewer and water lines that need expensive upkeep.

In other words, Lisa’s position that single family homes are somehow better than apartments for Norwalk is based on pure nonsense, as well as her undying fear of diversity and lower income folks (dog whistle racism, which her article above is full of). We all can’t live in million-dollar homes in Rowayton and be in the top 1% like Lisa enjoys, now can we?

As long as Lisa keeps making her dubious claims in public without any data to back them up, she will be challenged.

Lisa Biagiarelli, Tax Collector February 4, 2020 at 6:35 pm

From the above: “Hopefully, Mr. Ford will clarify if Norwalk’s tax assessment and collection practices have been adapted to our housing shift. I don’t think they have. Homeowners face public shaming and tax lien sales every two years if they fail to pay. Anonymous LLCs or slum landlords don’t appear to face the same level of scrutiny or consequences.”

This is incorrect.

The City of Norwalk holds biannual tax sales – not tax lien sales. We sell the property, not the lien. We publicize not to achieve ‘public shaming,’ but because we are required to by state and federal law. There are strict requirements for providing notice to taxpayers and others when the city is holding a tax sale and seizing property, because owning property is a constitutionally protected right.

We do not target only homeowners, but any property owner who owes. “Anonymous LLCs or slum landlords” are treated exactly the same as ‘homeowners’. All taxpayers face the same scrutiny, and the same consequences, regardless of what type of property they own, or who they are. And finally, the assessor has nothing to do with the tax sale. It is my responsibility, by statute.

Holding tax sales to compel payment of back property taxes helps Norwalk achieve high current and back tax collection rates, which in turn lead to lower mill rates, more stable budgeting, higher bond ratings, and the ability to borrow money at a lower cost. It is important that the public understands how tax sales work, and why we do them. I hope this is helpful.

Carol Merritt February 4, 2020 at 7:56 pm

Thank you, Lisa! As a homeowner & property tax payer in East Norwalk we are fed up with footing the bill for others. East Norwalk was hit the hardest with the latest unfair tax assessment! Excellent question-How will the city pay for the shift?

Bryan Meek February 4, 2020 at 10:46 pm

@Lisa B. Thanks for some more information. It would be helpful to know where to find these kind of details. The city’s website still remains mired in a 20th century slump. I understand this is the Assessors area, but do you happen to know why our threshold for reporting rental income is on 5+ units versus the 3+ that Fairfield requires? This is at the heart of the issue, some would believe. I’m not one to expand headcount, but we are woefully staffed in Tax and Collection and maybe that’s the overarching problem?

Bryan Meek February 4, 2020 at 10:48 pm

@Adam. Thankfully there are only 5 or 6 from head of harbor. Is that an actual number or are you still going off the estimate the developer gave? Any comment on the fact the Glover ave apartments that were supposed to have 0 now have 3 school busses stopping there? Thanks for your insight.

Bryan Meek February 4, 2020 at 10:57 pm

Mushak is funny. Yes, let’s pack every last square inch of this city with apartments. The data shows its all good!

Residente February 5, 2020 at 12:10 am

@ Adam Blank, per pupil spending in Norwalk is $18.5k

@ Mushak apartment dwellers may pay more per square foot but in most cases pay less tax OVERALL compared to single family homeowners in Norwalk. When there is a child to educate, the advantage goes to the renter, given the lesser overall tax paid. If you want to associate the cost of paving and plowing to homeowners, then the costs of transit should be added to transit renters as homeowners who drive do not need the walk bridge, trains or busses.

It should be alarming to all taxpaying homeowners to see a 9% increase in education costs during a push to keep increasing apartment stock. The look at Wooster is interesting. It’s no secret that Mr Ford is walking into the aftermath of an iffy assessment and lots of appeals. The substance of the article is important to Norwalkers who are exposed to increasing taxes as homeowners are carrying a heavier burden, a trend that appears may continue.

Non Partisan February 5, 2020 at 8:12 am

Policies have consequences

Zoning. Our city officials have admitted that they only investigate complaints and drive past violations- this leads to decreased property values, increased # of illegal apartments, and swelling student enrollments

Medium density housing with subsidized components- decreases potential tax income on a per unit basis

Sanctuary city policies have swelled the student population with higher cost ell student, lowered test scores, and subsequently lowered single family property values

It’s all pretty simple to understand why our Property values are in decline, and demographically we are getting poorer.

The question is- when will our administration take its collective head out of the sand and see reality?

Mimi Chang February 5, 2020 at 10:52 am

Mike Mushak, the man who has used the racially charged words “ghetto” and “slum” to describe the community of East Norwalk, but somehow is given a pass and is allowed to sit on the City of Norwalk Planning Commission, is throwing the race card at Lisa Brinton? Oh, the hypocrisy. Looking forward to an explanation here from @Mike Mushak as to why he should be allowed to remain on any city commission after offending our community with racially charged rhetoric. Norwalk deserves respectful representation.

Adolph Neaderland February 5, 2020 at 12:22 pm

Mike Mushak continually contends that renters pay more in taxes (through the owner) per square foot than home owners, thereby justifying the continued construction of circa 1990 mixed use residential housing blocks.

That assumes:
a) that the building and associated “mixed use commercial” are fully rented and the
b) that the owner is not offsetting taxes thru the complexity of the tax laws, such as depreciation or losses elsewhere.
c) that the city has not provided any tax incentives in any form, including city financed infrastructure to lure the developer.
d) that our waste disposal facility is not taxed to capacity with the extra 230 gallons per unit per day (and some unknown volume from commercial) that would lead to river spills due to the inevitable increase in rain caused by climate change.
just to name a few!

What Mike needs to do is provide convincing data (facts) to support his repeated statements, not just verbiage.

I can not recall ever seeing such a study.

Jason February 5, 2020 at 4:07 pm

@Audrey to your comment “don’t want Norwalk to turn into another Stamford”, sorry to say it’s already happened. We now have the “new” Stamford Mall in our town, and the rest will follow accordingly. I can’t tell if that’s a bad thing, or a good one. It kind of just is what it is. Just wait until the new Apple store opens. Who knows, it may inject a much-needed boost into the local economy. Only time will tell.

Jason February 5, 2020 at 4:10 pm

Also, we should all hope that someday all department heads at city hall would be as well-spoken and concise as Lisa Biagiarelli. Perhaps her position is somewhat apolitical, but that, dear taxpayers, is a person who knows her stuff and then some. Thank you, Ms. Biagiarelli.

Residente February 5, 2020 at 5:14 pm

@Claire, I used the suggested budget amounts for next year which may be the difference. I see your point though, the city is spending about $15,000+ per student with the state covering the rest. Thank U

Mike Mushak February 5, 2020 at 6:05 pm

@Mimi Chang:
Yes, I used the phrase “looks like a slum” in a meeting over two years ago to describe the immediate area around the East Norwalk train station, not all of East Norwalk as you portrayed.

At the time, that area still had burned out storefronts in Ludlow Plaza (which have since been renovated), and more empty storefronts on East Ave, along with broken trash-strewn sidewalks with few people walking there, the rusted train bridge with narrow sidewalk hardly wide enough for two people, and expanses of asphalt around way too many gas stations for a gateway to East Norwalk.

The discussion was during the 230 East Ave application, and my point was that adding a couple of hundred residents to that neighborhood would create a critical mass of people to support new businesses and sidewalk activity that attractive and healthy communities strive for.

In hindsight, I should have used another term than “looks like a slum.” I will know better next time, and use the phrase “economically-depressed area.” I am truly sorry you were offended.

I’m curious, did you also find offense when Lisa Brinton used the phrase “slum landlord” in her letter above, that we are all commenting on? Wouldn’t the same standard apply here?

Please answer as you leveled quite a charge in your last comment, that I don’t deserve to volunteer to serve our city because I used a word over two years ago that Lisa Brinton used just this week.

Thank you in advance for your response!

Victor Cavallo February 5, 2020 at 8:52 pm

Hey Mike; what’s a broken record? Is it like the President getting the unemployment rate down to the lowest in history?

Mimi Chang February 7, 2020 at 2:58 pm

@Mike Mushak,

Glad to read your display of sensitivity. We’re one diverse community and we all proudly call Norwalk our home. You left out explaining your use of the word “ghetto” to negatively describe an area of East Norwalk. You chose a word that, when used to derogatorily describe an area, connotes that you, the user, perceive yourself to be above those who reside in the area. In that same discussion, you were heard to say you could never live in said area. Surely you can understand how, as an individual who sits on the Norwalk Planning Commission and has certain power of decision making regarding our community, your words are inappropriate. Opinions are like noses – everybody has one. My opinion is that I don’t feel confident in you making decisions for East Norwalk after seeing, hearing and reading how you’ve conducted yourself, now and throughout the past mayoral campaign season.

The small part of East Norwalk you describe around the train station is not in poor condition because it, as you say, “looks like a slum”, or is an “economically-depressed area“. The East Norwalk statistics presented by Harriman to residents at the East Avenue TOD Visioning Workshop indicate that this is not the case:

http://tomorrow.norwalkct.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/20190430-OversightCommitee-Meeting-Final.pdf

Past poor planning and zoning, little or no zoning enforcement, lack of oversight and investment in infrastructure maintenance, all areas which fall under city purview/management, and then the issue of the strip mall owner choosing to have that then burnt out building stand vacant in that condition for a very long time, are all reasons that area had/has looked depressed for far too long. Residents are happy that City Hall has finally stepped up in more recent years with a plan to make up for lost time on improvements. Please do not now conflate several years of City Hall lack of oversight with the false narrative of the area being an “economically-depressed area“ to justify why it looks as it does.

Add to that your explanation below to justify using the words “looks like a slum”, which is also troubling:

“The discussion was during the 230 East Ave application, and my point was that adding a couple of hundred residents to that neighborhood would create a critical mass of people to support new businesses and sidewalk activity that attractive and healthy communities strive for.”

Your comment smacks of insta-gentrification, which perceivably does not justify, but somewhat reinforces, not intentionally, I’m sure, your racially charged use of the words “ghetto” and “looks like a slum”. Is the area you described nothing that a good old injection of a certain socioeconomic group of apartment dwelling transplants can’t fix, or are you going to guarantee us that the apartments will be of an affordable price point for all East Norwalk residents? And what of us large numbers of residents who live here now, a good amount of us within intentional walking distance to the train – an already dense, naturally occurring TOD, not an inflated, forced one? Would we not support new businesses and sidewalk activity, or do we need to add what you and the planners and consultants call “critical mass” to do that, even though residents shouted from the rooftops in the visioning workshops (reflected in resident exercises in above link) that they do not want critical mass? Did you attend the workshops and hear what I did? Are you truly representing the best interests of East Norwalk residents, or are you representing special interests and preferred developers?

Is Lisa Brinton in her Op-Ed using racially charged words when referencing a recognized classification of housing most often not recorded in the books, the classification of which at times poses health hazards, sometimes life threatening or death causing, to tenants dwelling in poor conditions at the hands of negligent landlords, to address our very real property tax assessment issues here in Norwalk? No. Are the words “slum-landlord”, and “slumlord”, recognized terms and business models commonly referenced by attorneys and professionals when classifying/discussing said housing types? Yes.

Definitions of slum-landlord or slumlord below:

https://www.etehadlaw.com/slum-landlord/

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/slumlord

https://www.inquilinxsunidxs.org/en/slumlord-as-a-business-model/

Are you extrapolating Lisa Brinton’s referencing the housing classification of “slum landlord” in an Op-Ed about economics, how tax structures are impacted and property tax revenue gained or lost by declared/non-declared classifications of housing, to falsely infer that Lisa is exhibiting as you say “dog whistle racism” and “fear of diversity and lower income people”? My opinion is, Absolutely. You also personally attack Lisa for living in Rowayton, which sounds to me like a form of discrimination. I know Lisa Brinton. She is not a racist. I do not associate with racists. I am sure you are not a racist. Throwing the race card where it is unwarranted has been happening a lot in Norwalk amongst politicians and elected officials, often for political gain. It is divisive, grows tiresome, and it is incredibly disappointing and damaging to many of us when our representatives carry on this way. Please save your accusations of racism for when real, actual racism occurs. After all, isn’t it you who posted, “Love wins”?

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