NORWALK, Conn. – A shower of accolades rarely seen on the Norwalk Common Council floor was rained upon the person responsible for collecting your taxes, of all things, Tuesday in City Hall.
Tax Collector Lisa Biagiarelli was even given a standing ovation by council members after her reappointment by Mayor Harry Rilling was unanimously approved.
Biagiarelli is currently conducting her sixth tax sale for the city since becoming tax collector in 2003.
The accolades started with Board of Estimate and Taxation Chairman Jim Clark.
“The data shows that she does a stellar job but also, being on the Board of Estimate and Taxation, we don’t just see the data, we see that she does her job with a great attitude and she is an asset to the city. We urge you all to reappoint her,” Clark said, addressing the council.
Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large), who was leading the meeting in the absence of the vacationing Rilling, said Biagiarelli does an “absolutely fabulous job.”
“I think she handles her job more professionally than anybody I have ever seen,” Hempstead said. “The tax collector name by itself usually paints other pictures of people. On top of that her collection rate in this city, compared to other cities, we have an A-1 person in the state of Connecticut. Her staff is always courteous when you walk in there. That shows good management.”
Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said he had served on the Finance Committee before Biagiarelli became tax collector.
“I remember meetings where we would look at our delinquent tax bills and, simplified, you couldn’t figure it out,” Kimmel said. “People owed the city money for years and years. We had dozens of lawyers, a couple dozen lawyers, on some retainer whose job was to collect these bills. Some of them went back three years. The idea of having tax sales, something like that, never thought about it, didn’t know how they worked, just knew we had a big problem.”
He continued, “Lisa was hired and immediately modernized the department. As Mr. Hempstead said, she is a true professional. She understands the nature of the job, she understands the law, what you have to do, what you can’t do and things like that. It’s a tough job being tax collector of a city and she and her staff handle it beautifully. It’s one of those jobs where if its handles correctly you are really saving taxpayers a ton of money. We are really fortunate to have somebody like Lisa as our tax collector. Sometimes you get these appointments and you look at them and you make the reappointment. I mean this is a no-brainer. We have a real treasure here that we need to keep. She’s done for us a whole lot that the public will never know about but is really benefitting the public.”
Minority Leader Travis Simms (D-District B) said Biagiarelli does a “remarkable job,” before Majority Leader Jerry Petrini (R-District D) weighed in.
Petrini said that when he was first elected to the council three years ago Biagiarelli reached out to him. “The first thing out of her mouth to me, and I wasn’t serving on the Finance Committee, was “welcome. Any questions you have my office is always open,” Petrini said.
He had been looking at the picture board for the tax sale Tuesday afternoon and noticed that, one by one, the properties were being marked paid, he said. More than $4 million has been collected, he said, and there was a man looking at the board who commented that the money collected was saving other citizens money, he said.
“Our percentage of collecting taxes is probably second to none,” Petrini said, commenting that the sale is “a tremendous amount of work.”
“We are really, really fortunate that not only do we get to reappoint you but that you decided to stay with Norwalk,” Petrini said to Biagiarelli, sitting in the audience.
Councilman John Igneri (D-District E) said Biagiarelli does a wonderful job and is very responsive.
“The one question I have is ‘How do you keep smiling?’ Questions come from the Finance Committee and you just keep smiling. So keep it up and we’re lucky to have you,” Igneri said.
Biagiarelli offered to give council members an update on the sale before she was sworn in but Hempstead declined.
In other council news:
The reappointment of the Planning Commission chairman was preceded by a promise of more work to be done by the volunteer.
Bike/Walk Co-chairman Mike Mushak spoke in favor of all of the appointments on the council’s agenda, but singled out Torgny Astrom.
“I think it’s a good time to really think about the Planning Commission expanding its responsibilities into what the city charter originally intended, which was to be the commission that oversaw and coordinated the departments because the word is coordinated,” Mushak said.
There are three different plans for improving the transportation aspects of Norwalk, which include plans for bicyclists and pedestrians, developed by three different departments, Mushak said. Norwalk is years behind on the implementation of those plans, he said.
“We are getting organized and have lots of great ideas but we never hear from the Planning Commission in terms of what they feel about that. If their responsibility is to plan and coordinate the physical, social and economic development of the city, it makes sense that they would have a voice and that they would be considered a major stakeholder in a lot of these plans,” Mushak said.
He went on to talk about the high cost of creating parking spaces. Revising the “draconian parking requirements” would benefit small businesses, he said.
“I am looking forward to working with Torgny. Now that I am not on zoning I am intending on asking to speak to the Planning Commission on some of these issues. Even if traditionally they haven’t done a lot of that we can really talk now about expanding that because there are a lot of silos now in Norwalk. Departments kind of working independent of each other, and I think the Planning Commission is well poised by city charter to coordinate and plan for the city.
“I think Mr. Mushak has some points we should address of these long term issues and I know he will probably take those up,” Hempstead said.
Astrom’s appointment got off to an odd start when Councilwoman Michelle Maggio (R-District C) responded to a lack of interest by other council members when Hempstead asked for someone to make the motion to appoint him.
Maggio said she was under the weather and couldn’t talk very well.
“Mike Mushak was talking about you very highly and although I don’t know you personally I hear you come highly recommended… So there’s my movement,” Maggio said, drawing laughter.
Hempstead said Astrom has done an excellent job. The appointment was unanimously approved, as were all the other appointments on the agenda:
• Louis Bonsangue was appointed to the Conservation Commission (he had been an alternate)
• Anthony Mobilia was re-appointed to the Harbor Management Commission
• John Pinto was re-appointed to the Harbor Management Commission
• Jerry Crowley was appointed to the Oak Hills Park Authority
• David Hollar was re-appointed to the Oak Hills Park Authority
• Robert Frazier was re-appointed to the Tree Advisory Committee
• Gay McLeod was re-appointed to the Tree Advisory Committee
• Richard Whitehead was re-appointed to the Tree Advisory Committee
You want accolades?
• Mobilia is a “great asset” and “a great human being,” Councilman David Watts (D-District A) said.
• Pinto is a “Great person, very knowledgeable” and pulled off that “almost impossible dream of getting our harbor dredged,” Petrini said.
• The work of the three Tree Advisory members really shows, Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E) said. “While it is an urban environment there still is a great deal of green and it is because of these three people,” he said.
Rare moment: Igneri agreed with McCarthy. The Tree Advisory Committee members have done a wonderful job for Norwalk, he said.
“Robert Frazier has an idea every day about doing something for the city with trees,” Igneri said. “As a matter of fact I try to avoid him sometimes in the morning when I am walking my dog because it’s a long conversation, but all joking aside he’s very good in particular.”
Health Department fees approved
You may recall that the council declined recently to approve the proposed Health Department fee schedule recently because no one from the Health Department appeared at council meetings to answer questions.
On Tuesday, Director of Health Tim Callahan answered a brief set of questions from Kimmel.
Kimmel wanted to know if the fees covered costs or generated excess revenue. They cover costs, Callahan said. Kimmel wanted to know the reasoning behind differing costs of food establishment licensing. Callahan said the formula is the cost of providing the service times the time spent at the establishment. Other questions concerned septic systems.
After four minutes the fees were unanimously approved.
Minimum bid threshold raised
The council unanimously voted to raise the minimum bid threshold that requires a bid to be opened to the public from $10,000 to $20,000.
Purchasing agent Gerald Foley had originally asked for it to be raised to $25,000 back in October, after the state authorized municipalities to raise the bid threshold to that figure.
Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) said the new threshold for bidding does not change the number of quotes required. From $1 to $4,999 two quotes are required, she said. From $5,000 to $19,999 three bids are required.
Foley said the formal public bid process is much more labor intensive for city departments than obtaining private bids and that he thought the new threshold would make them more productive.