NORWALK, Conn. — Some Norwalk political notes for you:
- Rilling tells City departments to cut more from budgets
- Equity and Justice for All Commission launch imminent, Rilling says
- Explaining tax assessment appeal refunds
Mayor Harry Rilling has instructed City departments to shave their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year by .5%, which equates to cutting $5,000 from every $1 million they have planned to spend.
This will further lower the appropriations cap set by the Common Council, which was $1 million lower than recommended by Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz.
“We think this is something very doable,” Rilling said Monday to the Board of Estimate and Taxation, noting that the request for a plan B was “a little bit premature” given that the BET will be meeting with department heads soon to comb their budget requests.
So, is this intended to provide leeway for education funding?
“Actually, I hope reduce expenditures wherever possible,” Rilling wrote Tuesday. “My request to department heads was to spread reductions across the board and to not exceed the cap on the budget set by the Common Council. The .5% reduction calculates to $5,000.00 for each $1 million allocated.”
Expect an announcement
It’s been eight months since Rilling and Norwalk Chief of Social Services Lamond Daniels announced that the City was forming a permanent Equity and Justice for All Commission, and many people are frustrated that the work has not yet begun.
The holdup has been the desire to hire a consultant. Rilling told the Democratic Town Committee on Feb. 15 that a seven-member panel was down to two finalists for the work, and it looked like they’d be making a decision soon.
On Wednesday, Rilling said, “We will be making an announcement in the very near future.”
Back in June, Daniels emphasized a need for “experts at the table,” the reason behind the plan to issue a request for proposals for organizations and individuals who have a proven track record of doing this type of work. He also said that bringing in a consultant will help deliver on the Mayor’s commitment to this and help bring in research and data.
“I want someone to come in with a fresh set of eyes who can listen,” Rilling said in June. “I want neutrality. We’re going to make sure this is fair, honest and objective.”
In October, Rilling said the City had gotten 25 inquiries on the RFP, but only two responses.
“We didn’t feel that either one of them met our needs,” he said. “So we reached out to the other people that made inquiries, but didn’t respond. The reason they didn’t respond, unfortunately, they were all asking pretty much the same question: ‘How much money do you have to spend?’ And I don’t like to answer that question. Because if we say we have $500,000, we’re going to get, everybody’s going to come in around 495-499.”
Norwalk had gone out to bid with “a ballpark figure range,” he said. “We expect that we will be getting a quick turnaround time. I have a team put together that are going to go over the solicitations, we’ll look at the applications. And then they’ll get narrowed down.”
Large refunds not anticipated
The $1.2 million refund awarded to Waypointe in January after an assessment appeal was an unusual circumstance, Finance Department officials said.
The property sold after the valuation date and if the assessment appeal had gone to court the result would have been a lower number than the parties had agreed to in negotiations, Tax Assessor William Ford told Common Council members.
There were 400 appeals filed on the 2018 revaluation and “we are taking ones to trial that we believe that there’s no basis for a reduction,” Ford said. “…We don’t anticipate and a large number of these high number cases.” Most of them center on assessments in the $200,000 range and “when it boils down to actual tax dollars, it’s not very significant.”
Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola said he’s in charge of tax bill defenses in Westport, Weston Wilton, New Canaan and Easton. “I do all the major cases for Trumbull, which are, there’s a few properties that are over $100 million in value,” he said. “…In the higher value cases, this is as a result that you do see quite often where when you make a change, it results in a significant tax savings.”
He had recently settled one that resulted in a $1.2 million savings to the taxpayer over a five-year period, he said. Ordinarily, these things don’t get a lot of attention because they don’t come to the legislative body for a refund, instead a credit is issued for future years.
Waypointe got a refund because the property sold and the former owner isn’t going to be able to tax advantage of a credit, Ford said.
“Quite honestly, in Norwalk, I think we probably do a more extensive defense, quite often, of the appeals, we do have the benefit of having in-house counsel that’s not billing by the hour,” Coppola said. “So we do have some advantages in within Norwalk in the system that we have.”
Norwalk has a significant number of appeals because “we have a significant number of commercial properties in comparison to other communities in Fairfield County,” Coppola said.
The Finance Department builds the credits into its budget, Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz said. There’s also a reserve in the budget “on the assumption that we may have cases where we have to distribute cash. I check those numbers with Mr. Ford to make sure he feels based on the review of the litigation it’s adequate.”
Dachowitz said the five-year cycle between revaluations results in lower reserve numbers in years four and five and while $3 million was budgeted in years one and two after the 2018 reval, in the coming year “we’re going to keep it at two and a half million, just because he inherited 400 cases. And we just want to make sure that the budget is protected.”