NORWALK, Conn. – It comes as no surprise to Hal Alvord that many people in Norwalk don’t believe the things he says.
“I have a credibility problem with a lot of people,” said Alvord, the director of Norwalk’s Department of Public Works, Friday. “I look at 10 years that I have been here and I have had to make a case for how under-resourced the city’s infrastructure and this department have been for decades,” he continued, explaining why that is, in response to this reporter’s question.
Alvord is under fire, the target of barbs from council members over “no-bid contracts” and overridden by the Traffic Authority last week regarding bike lanes. There’s also a “no confidence” petition issued a month ago by DPW employees, accusing Alvord and DPW Operations Manager Lisa Burns of “abusive and heavy-handed tactics,” disrespect to front-line workers and creating a poisonous work environment. While then-Mayor Richard Moccia dismissed a similar letter in 2008, Mayor Harry Rilling promised to listen to the employees’ concerns. Rilling has offered no comment since.
Numerous Norwalk residents have told Nancy On Norwalk that Alvord is not to be trusted, and many have left comments on the site about his performance (only comments by those using their real names are listed in this sampling):
Common Council member Bruce Kimmel:
For the record, Alvord was not at the finance committee meeting where the item was introduced and barely passed because that month’s DPW committee meeting at been cancelled. I have no idea why he was not at the meeting, since the radios were so important an issue.
At the finance committee meeting, Lisa Burns from DPW explained how the existing radios were thirty years old, had been in dire need of repair for years, and were critically important to city workers. She admitted that the $132,000 item had “fallen through the cracks” during the capital budget process. That, of course, was unacceptable, but we approved the item by a one vote majority because the city truly needs the new system.
Without going into the capital budget process, which takes a long time and which can be easily modified along the way, what Burns said regarding so large an expense just can’t happen; unless, of course, we are dealing with a department that is in disarray.
Zoning Commission member Nora King:
Hal Alvord has been passing the buck for the past ten years. It is about time the city of Norwalk hires someone to run DPW that actually lives in the town they are paid to serve.
Former Zoning Commission member Mike Mushak:
When Hal Alvord said something that I knew wasn’t true, I used a “point of order” as a member of the public, which is my right, to correct the record for the committee. Chair Dave McCarthy found that out of line and asked me to leave the room, and so I guess we now have a policy that Hal Alvord can say anything he wants to the committee with impunity, no matter how untrue it may be. We should all be worried about this, including the steady flow on no-bid contracts steered towards favored vendors selected by Alvord alone that are of great concern to many. Taxpayers, beware.
Activist Diane CeCe:
Tree City USA? Ha! What a joke – first the deafening silence of the Tree Warden (Hal Alvord) as Oak Hills Park Authority planned to clear cut acres of trees, and now this. Another Hal Alvord boondoggle – how much more damage can we allow this man to inflict upon Norwalk? Crumbling, disgusting infrastructure, untimed lights, slalom course road lanes, lack of sidewalks, dangerous bike lanes (file under “be careful what we wish for”), stop signs and no parking restrictions that no one wants that create dangerous intersections & pollution and hinder businesses, clogged storm water drains that cause flooding and the list goes on and on.
Surely there is some reason why 3 administrations have allowed him to keep his job – what is it?
Alvord, a retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers colonel, said his credibility problem stems from the crumbling state of Norwalk’s infrastructure when he was hired by then-Mayor Alex Knopp in late 2003.
“People don’t want to hear you when you come into them and say, ‘Well you gave me $1 million last year, I need $10 million this year and here’s why,’ you know? They don’t like it,” Alvord said. “I’ve been around long enough, I don’t need people to like me and pat me on the back. I came to Norwalk because I saw two things. I saw what the state of the infrastructure was and I saw what the potential for this city could be. I can’t do a lot about the potential other than the contribution of the infrastructure piece of it and the surveys of it. And to be honest with you, I am fairly proud of what we have done. We are providing garbage and recycling services that are of a higher level than we’ve ever had before and we’re saving millions of dollars a year doing it.”
Norwalk outsourced its solid waste and recycling collection to City Carting more than a year ago amid much controversy. Director of Management and Budgets Bob Barron confirmed last month that the predicted savings have come through: Norwalk had spent $1.4 million less than it would have spent from the beginning of the contract through the end of the 2013-14 Fiscal Year, he said. However, complaint persist about the quality of service.
Alvord frequently says his manpower and budget are out of line for a city the size of Norwalk, that he is understaffed and underfunded. Norwalk, with about 86,000 residents, has 102 DPW employees and an $18.3 million budget this year. There were 250 Norwalk DPW employees in 1985, he said.
A check of the next largest and next smallest cities in the state show both have more employees. Waterbury, with a population of 107,000, has a fulltime DPW staff of about 185 people, according to DPW Director Lou Spina. He said the current budget is about $18 million. Danbury, with about 80,000 people, has about 140 employees and a $25 million budget.
New Britain did not respond to a request for information, and the city of about 73,000 does not list its staff size online. However, according to budget documents, the DPW budget was $20.3 million this year, and is looking at a $5 million cut for 2015 as the city is $10 million in the red.
Norwalk has a “heck of a team,” Alvord said, referring to his engineering staff. They bust their butts, he said, working long hours to fix Norwalk, he said.
“We’re replacing the entire traffic signal system and it’s not costing the city a nickel, other than some time on the part of our engineering staff. Our bridges, in 2016 the city is going to be in a posture where it’s not going to have to touch another bridge in this city for 50 years. Haviland Deck and Yankee Doodle Garage would have been closed down for safety reasons if we hadn’t done the restoration of those facilities,” Alvord said.
Recently, it was revealed that work on the Yankee Doodle Bridge would not begin until 2016 or 2017, and the Walk Bridge replacement is further out than that, but those projects are largely dependent on federal money and contracts.
Norwalk has spent “$50 million of other people’s money” over the past 10 years to fix the city’s infrastructure, Alvord said, referring to federal grants. That saved local residents from the burden of the debt service, he said, while acknowledging that Norwalkers do carry some of the burden through federal and state taxes.
“I am proud of what they have gotten done,” Alvord said, of his staff. “It’s amazing what they have gotten done.”
Knopp echoed that pride in a statement:
“My principal goal as mayor was to modernize the city’s government and bring it forward into the 21st century. I hired Hal Alvord because I was convinced he shared my desire to move around the heavy furniture in the DPW and make major reforms in the department. Observers may have lost track of how many significant governmental reforms we made, but it was a very productive period. Hal successfully implemented our creation of the Norwalk Parking Authority to take parking costs off the property tax system, the Norwalk Water Pollution Control Authority to implement better performance at the treatment plant and adopt the sewer user-fee system, the Norwalk Facilities Construction Commission to manage city building projects, and the Customer Service Center to give us better management information about resident feed-back. And here’s the proof of their value: all of these major new systems survived intact after I left office.
“To improve the city’s decayed infrastructure, we took advantage of the low interest rate environment and adopted the biggest capital budget in the city’s history. Hal provided an experienced and creative management perspective to the many construction projects we launched. And he agreed to put many DPW services on line for better customer access and to utilize the new fiber optic systems we installed.
“It’s probably the case that Hal’s strong personality and impatience sometimes may have interfered with his ability to get things done without conflicts with other city employees and I certainly had my share of tussles with him over departmental priorities. But overall I believe Hal has made major contributions to improving public services in Norwalk and has more than fulfilled the original goals of reform, innovation and customer service we set during my administration for upgrading the DPW.”
Alvord, who in recommending last week against bike lanes on Belden Avenue said that he and his staff would be forced to testify against Norwalk should there be any liability-causing injuries, said his sharp commentary is intentional.
“There are people – who I don’t know if they don’t like you because you’re successful or productive or whatever, and there are times when I have been fairly pointed in the things I say in order to make my point because my experience in working in the political arena is if you downplay things, if you soften things, they don’t get done,” Alvord said. “So I intentionally am fairly pointed sometimes in the comments that I make, and I do that intentionally to get people’s attention because otherwise it will just disappear. If I hadn’t, we’d still be investing $1.5 million in our roads and they’d be a disaster. Now we’re doing $5 million a year.”
He continued, “I am proud of everything this department has done. There are people who want to make issues out of things, you know. They’re going to make issues out of things without really understanding what the heck they are talking about. There’s not much I can do about that and I am going to continue to try to do the best job for the city at the best value for the city.”