NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk council members have “grabbed something easy” while they wrestle with the can of worms inherent in revising Norwalk’s sidewalk ordinance, sending a revision related to construction permits to the full council for a vote on Tuesday.
That was after a prolonged discussion at last week’s Ordinance Committee meeting concerning the ramifications of liens and fines. Chapter 95 is still a thorn in the committee’s side – although Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) said much progress had been made – and members voted unanimously to go with a suggestion made by Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large): “Can we grab something easy here to move it forward?” Meaning, separate Chapter 96 from Chapter 95 and send it for a vote on its own.
Assistant Corporation Counsel Brian McCann had asked if maybe the committee could send the drafted sidewalk ordinance through and then maybe overhaul it later. McCann said he was worried that there is no “trip and fall” language in place to protect the city from liability, and that there are contractors doing work all over the city without permits, with no penalty.
Penalties for not having a permit are a Chapter 96 issue.
Councilman David Watts (D-District A) said he would vote no. He had been arguing that a provision should be made to protect lower income people from liens and fines they cannot afford.
“I am prepared to vote no on this because this may be good for the city but bad for my district, without the protection in here that protects the citizens of my district,” Watts said. “You talk about passing an ordinance. When was the last time we passed an ordinance? When was the last time we passed an ordinance the last council? I think they did the chicken one last time. Blight and chicken. … Maybe there is a new vigor with this committee, and it’s not a knock, but again I want to make sure that when we do pass an ordinance, because passing an ordinance is so rare, that we get some protection for an area, you know, give me something that I can take back to my district.”
He suggested that he could live with protection for senior citizens but Councilman Travis Simms (D-District B) said he wanted protection for anyone in the urban community who was under a certain income limit. “You want to make sure everyone is protected, not just seniors,” Simms said.
The committee was hung up on liens and fines. Fines accrue, meaning that even if you fix the problem you still owe the city money, they said.
Watts said the attitude expressed toward liens, that the expensive work could be done without costing the homeowner, was false.
“If you have a lien and you have to refinance or sell it, that is a part of your wealth gone down the drain,” Watts said. “…If we do push this forward I just want to make sure these liens or fines are not in a particular neighborhood where they already have financial problems.”
A sliding scale is in order, he said.
“I have been around this building for a little while now,” Watts said. “I want to make sure there is a procedure in place that says how we determine that and it’s on the books, and it’s not ‘hey we’ll give you a lien’ but ‘you, you’re getting fined every day.’ OK? That’s not a good way to go forward … I don’t want to leave that to a city bureaucrat. No offense.”
Many of the poor sidewalks are in the urban area, he said.
“I am begging you, I am asking you to do the benevolent thing and make sure that if we have liens and fines and the person can prove that they cannot do it that the fines will be adjusted according to income, and it’s right in this law. It should be,” Watts said.
Bonenfant said he appreciated that but, “It’s a tough pill to swallow if you don’t quite make that threshold, you’re paying for the full ride and you’re finding out that your tax dollars are paying for the other guy, too. … There is people – won’t say they’re indigent but they don’t have an extra $7,000 to throw out the door.”
But Watts had a point, Bonenfant said. “They’ll say ‘Let’s just pass it and we’ll come back and we’ll fix it later.’ That never happens, or it does, it’s five years later,” the veteran councilman said.
Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said that, in his research into sidewalk ordinances, he had looked at a half a dozen other towns and no one had both liens and fines. Every one except Westport had liens. Norwalk was the only one that had both.
“I think they avoid all these dilemmas, you go one way or another,” Kimmel said.
The Finance Committee should have a senior tax relief program nailed down next month, he said. That would involve reimbursement; the ordinance committee could plug the language into the sidewalk ordinance, he said.
Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said sewer assessment language could be used. “At some point we need to pull the trigger. It has come a long way,” he said, of the ordinance.
McCann said that the existing ordinance has been in place for 10 years without an issue. Kimmel said that the sidewalks are in lousy condition after those 10 years.
“This is the first time in my memory that we are tackling the problems and it has to be addressed or there will be that many more sidewalk issues to deal with. Eventually the chances of a serious tragedy occurring goes up,” Kimmel said.
He suggested, as he has in the past, that Norwalk might need to approach its dilapidated sidewalks the way it has approached its roads. The city spends $5 million a year on roads now, but when that was first suggested it was looked upon as being crazy, he said.
“We had capital budgets in the ’90’s that totaled $7 million. We spend that much on road repair now,” Kimmel said. “We bit the proverbial bullet with roads and now we have to do it with sidewalks and there’s got to be something in the budget. (The Department of Public Works) can’t perform miracles. … (Director Hal Alvord) needs the budget. He needs the ordinance and he needs the money.”
“Still, we have to be careful because a lot of people’s taxes went up by a lot of money and you know there’s got to be a tipping point there, too,” Bonenfant said.