NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk is looking for a new Tax Assessor, in an ad posted four days ago.
Mayor Harry Rilling touched on the issue briefly at Tuesday’s Board of Estimate and Tax (BET) budget review meeting, at which the Tax Assessor’s Office was one of the departments up for a discussion. BET member Jim Frayer asked if Ford was going to comment on budgetary line items and Rilling said, “Mr. Ford is no longer with the City.”
The discussion featured Paul Gorman, hired as Deputy Assessor in April, called himself “interim assessor” and explaining that he couldn’t answer questions well because he had just learned Monday that he’d be making the budget presentation.
Rilling did not answer an email asking about the comment. On Thursday, Norwalk Director of Communications Michelle Woods Matthews answered a follow-up email, saying, “Upon leaving the City of Norwalk, Bill Ford was eligible and will receive payment for his accrued vacation time, which he earned throughout the course of his employment. There is no other severance due.”
The departure comes in the midst of a heated budget season and heavy criticism of the Finance Department.
On Feb. 28, three Common Council members called it “unacceptable” that the Council had not been given an accurate Grand List that day, as they deliberated on a budget cap. Council member Nicol Ayers (D-District A) said she had “lost complete and utter faith” in Dachowitz and Ford to “give us true numbers for us to do our job.”
Rilling said he’d called Ford into his office three days later.
Feb. 28 was the deadline for a Grand List; it’s due Jan. 31 but Rilling had granted a one-month extension. The Grand List document with reportedly accurate numbers is dated March 3.
The Tax Collector’s Office and the Tax Assessor’s Office have been struggling with a software transition, which reportedly did not go well. The Grand List was compiled with Munis, the system Norwalk was in the process of dropping. On Feb. 28, Ford said some properties had been input as being taxable when they were exempt, and the calculation needed to be revised.
Ford was not present for the March 9 Council Finance Committee meeting, where Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) delivered the Tax Assessor’s Office statistics on the ongoing revaluation.
Ford worked for two years without a deputy after being hired on the eve of the pandemic. He had been City Assessor in Worcester, Mass., for 10 years when he came here to replace Michael Stewart, who retired the previous summer. Assistant Tax Assessor William O’Brien resigned at about the same time.
Stewart and O’Brien’s departure followed a citywide revaluation in 2018, described by lone Council Republican Bryan Meek as “botched.” More than 400 appeals were filed on the valuations done by Tyler Technologies, and court-ordered stipulations are cited as one of the reasons the 2022 Grand List is lower than the one preceding it.
When Stewart and O’Brien left, Rilling promised a different direction.
“I typically do not comment on personnel matters, however, I felt it was important to let the public know this department is heading in a new direction,” Rilling was quoted as saying in a news release. “These changes provide me with the unique opportunity to transform the Assessor’s office. This department will be more responsive to the public going forward through improved customer service and communication.”
In a 2019 email to NancyOnNorwalk, Rilling said, “The reval was not botched. I was only concerned about the process and how the Assessor’s office did not communicate in an open and transparent way leading to confusion.”
The efficiency study of Norwalk’s government departments, released a year ago, painted an unflattering picture of the Tax Assessor’s Office, portraying it as “lacking in sufficient supervision and expertise.”
Study authors Evergreen Solutions LLC cited personnel shortages, incompatible software, and remote working arrangements for multiple staff members, including Ford, who, it was rumored, had been working from Vermont.
Property records show Ford bought a Fairfield County home in late 2021. He sold a Massachusetts home in the same time period. His name didn’t turn up in a search of Vermont property records.
Dachowitz has said it’s “exceedingly hard in the state of Connecticut to find good senior assessor personnel.”
Unlike Ford, Gorman, former Westport Analyst Inspector, is a certified Connecticut Assessor. Dachowitz recently said Ford had taken the classes needed to be certified in Connecticut and would be taking the test when it is offered in October. Colchester Tax Assessor John Chaponis said it was “reasonable” that Ford wasn’t certified and described it as irrelevant, given that the department likely had certified assessors who could sign the Grand List.
Information added, 2:22 p.m. Thursday.
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