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Norwalk political notes: Finance Department issues

Merlin Mitchell studies numbers as Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz presents numbers remotely, Feb. 28 in City Hall. (Nancy Chapman)

NORWALK, Conn. — Some Norwalk political notes for you, all related to the Finance Department:

  • A hopefully-final Grand List total
  • The Mayor grants a Grand List deadline extension, not the State
  • “Reasonable” that Norwalk’s Tax Assessor isn’t certified
  • Is the Tax Assessor working remotely?

Screenshots from three PDFs posted by the Norwalk Finance Department.

Grand List

The final-final 2022 Grand List total, or at least the last total that’s posted to the City’s website, is $15.05 billion.

That’s version 22, version six or version five, depending on where you’re looking on the PDF. It’s dated at 5 p.m. March 3 and compares to the $15.073 calculated at 9 p.m. Feb. 26 (version 20-version four) and the $14.94 billion calculated at 6 p.m. Feb. 28 (version 21/version five).

But the biggest comparison is to the 2021 Grand List total, reported at $15.1 billion a year ago. As you can see, the Grand List is roughly the same as last year, despite a hot real estate market and construction projects.

In December, Tax Collector Lisa Biagiarelli drew attention to total property valuation decreases, saying, the levy has “been significantly reduced due to court stipulated judgments for taxpayers who have appealed their assessments.”

Biagiarelli is responsible for collecting the tax levy, which is based on  the Grand List, created by the Assessor. Every month she updates the Board of Estimate and Taxation and the Common Council on the percentage of the tax levy she has collected. In doing so, she explained there had been a $2 million drop in the tax levy for real estate and a $4.4 million drop in personal property since the 2021 Grand List was produced.

So why so many 2022 Grand List calculation versions this winter?

The Tax Assessor’s Office struggled to meet the allegedly-State set deadline for a Grand List calculation this year. That deadline is Jan. 31 but a one-month extension was granted, making the deadline Feb. 28.

About a year ago, Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz said Norwalk was the last Connecticut municipality to use Munis accounting software and would shift to Quality Data Systems (QDS). In December, he said the shift to QDS had been expected by September but there were “delays, none of which were not our fault.”

The Tax Assessor and Tax Collector were therefore using an updated Munis version in what sounded like a lipstick-on-a-pig situation, with Dachowitz describing City staff patching up Munis day by day.

Last Tuesday, on the Feb. 28 deadline, Dachowitz said Tax Assessor Bill Ford had discovered an error and the Grand List presented to Common Council members needed a revision. Some properties were input as being taxable when they were exempt and the figure would drop.

At the time, Dachowitz said the Grand List was $15.073 billion. That’s from version four (or version 20), calculated two days earlier. Version “five,” dated 6 p.m. Feb. 28, just before the Council meeting, had it at $14.94 billion.

Four Council members called the effort “unacceptable.”

“I have lost complete and utter faith in you and Bill Ford to give us true numbers for us to do our job,” Nicol Ayers (D-District A) said. “…Mr. Dachowitz, with all respect, I have lost faith in you and I have lost faith in your ability to run the City’s financial department.”

Updated, 12:22 p.m.: Clarification, tax levy vs Grand List; copy edit.

State Statute

About that deadline.

“Mr. Ford got an extension on the deadline to supply the State with the Grand List,” Dachowitz said Feb. 28.

The next day, thinking that the State must have the Grand List, NancyOnNorwalk emailed the State agency involved, the Office of Policy and Management (OPM). Turned out, OPM had just learned of the extension the day before, through a news article.

State Statute allows the municipality’s chief executive to grant the assessor an extension on the deadline, requiring that OPM be notified within two weeks.

An email chain shows OPM Undersecretary Martin Heft contacting Mayor Harry Rilling on March 1 to say that it had not been notified. Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King replied with an apology, attributing it to a miscommunication. “It seems the Assessor believed the letter had been sent by the Mayor’s Office and the Mayor’s assistant thought she was providing the letter to Mr. Ford for him to send it on to your office,” she said.

“Under CGS 12-117 there is no provision for penalties or consequences for failure to notify OPM. We have accepted their notification,” said OPM Spokesperson Chris Collibee.

The actual Grand List is due May 1, he said.

Tax Assessor cannot sign the Grand List

It’s been rumored that Tax Assessor Bill Ford is not certified in Connecticut. That’s true.

Ford was working as Tax Assessor for Worcester, Mass., when he was hired for the Norwalk position just over three years ago and had more than two decades of experience as a Tax Assessor.

NoN asked Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz if Ford has achieved Connecticut certification.

On March 2, Dachowitz wrote:

“There are two requirements to taking the Exam in CT to becoming a Certified Assessor.  (1) Bill Ford has passed all the courses required before one may take the exam.  (2) On Jan. 19, 2023 Bill completed three years of work in CT as an Assessor.

“Having met both those State requirements, he intends to take the qualifying exam when next offered (it is only offered once/year, usually in September).

“In the meantime, our Deputy Assessor, Paul Gorman, is ALREADY qualified as a CT Assessor. This past Grand List filed Feb 28, 2023 was signed both by Mr. Gorman and Mr. Ford.”

 

David Dietsch, Tax Assessor for Colebrook and Chairman of the Connecticut Certified Municipal Assessor (CCMA) Committee, confirmed that Ford is not certified and has not applied to take the exam.

There are two levels of certification.

“To get the CCMA I certification you must have 3 years experience in an assessing or appraising related field. Plus you must take 3 mandatory classes 1A, 1B, and 4.  There are two other classes 2A and 2B that can be waived by the state upon request showing either similar education or experience,” CCMA Committee member Shawna Baron wrote Friday. “CCMA II has additional requirements including working in assessor office.”

Note: the three years of experience do not need to be in Connecticut.

Each class is 30 hours and are offered in June, Baron said. If there’s enough interest, CCMA will arrange a class at another time.

Colchester Tax Assessor John Chaponis said it’s “reasonable” that will have taken Ford 3.5 years to get certified.

“Furthermore, Norwalk is a fairly large city in which the Chief Assessor is an upper management position supervises a large staff and likely has expert staff in Personal Property, Motor Vehicles, and Real Estate.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they have between 1-3 employees who are already Certified Assessors in CT,” Chaponis wrote.

In 2020, Thoman DeNoto, then Connecticut Association of Assessing Officers (CAAO) President Elect, said it would take several years for Ford to get certified.

A Tax Assessor must be certified to sign the Grand List. Last year’s Grand List was signed by Norwalk Assessment Data Technician Laurie Tallcouch, OPM Spokesperson Chris Collibee said.

‘Imagine that’

It’s still rumored that Tax Assessor Bill Ford works remotely, an allegation that had a foundation in fact a year ago when Evergreen Solutions issued its efficiency study, describing Ford and multiple Tax Assessor staff members as working remotely.

In December, Mayor Harry Rilling said Ford is “back in the office a lot,” but NoN has continued to hear allegations that Ford isn’t there much.

Last week, an anonymous email landed, with many accusations that have turned out to be less than accurate. It alleged that Ford is “never” in the office.

On Thursday, Rilling said he doesn’t respond to anonymous emails/letters.

“If someone doesn’t have the courage to stand behind their assertions, then you should not put too much stock in them,” he wrote. “Funny though, I called for a meeting with Mr. Ford today and lo and behold, he was in his office. Came right to my office.  Imagine that!!”

Comments

8 responses to “Norwalk political notes: Finance Department issues”

  1. Barbara Meyer-Mitchell

    What a mess. Mr. Mayor, this is on you.

  2. Ana Tabachneck

    Thank you for such detailed work in running down the facts related to the tax assessor. I’d like to better understand why it is meaningful whether or not the assessor (or his staff) are working in an office vs remotely? Many folks that have administrative jobs still work primarily or 100% from home just fine. It’s true that many have also gone back to the office. I don’t understand why the location of work for this position is so important.

  3. Johnny cardamone

    I never knew Norwalk was so valuable! But even if it wasn’t, we love it, nevertheless!

  4. Patrick Cooper

    Municipal math – it’s hard for everyone. I’m trying to unpack this mishmash – nothing seems to square. Perhaps it’s the use of abbreviations – harder to see the real figures. Same with using multiple “versions”.

    It seems the high point is the published 2021 Grand List – at “15.1” billion. The February 26th (9pm) “estimate” was 15.073 billion. That’s down 27 million. The February 28th (6pm) “estimate” was 14.94 billion. Whoa! That’s down 160 million (from 2021). REPEAT: a 160,000,000 loss. One Hundred Sixty Million. The March 3rd (5pm) “estimate” is now 15.05 billion. That’s down 50 million from 2021, but surprise surprise – it’s UP 110 million in 3 days.

    Mass construction going on in virtually every part of the city – and the Grand List falls? Smoke?

    The tax office even said in December, and I quote “Her figures showed a $2 million drop in the 2021 Grand List for real estate and a $4.4 million drop in personal property”. Can you say – from the assessors empty office – garbage in – garbage out.

    Under Harry Rilling – Norwalk simply cannot manage its bank account, because it has no idea what’s in it – apparently. It has been going on since he was first elected.

    Recall Michael Stewart & William O’Brien both quit in August 2019. That was right after the last completely botched revaluation, when we socked it to the commercial properties. Apparently, they have deeper pockets and better lawyers. Residents better get ready – they are coming for us this next go-around.

    By the way – do we have an accounting of that? How much did Norwalk pay in legal fees to adjudicate those lawsuits? How much did that cost us? FOIA that!

    Something stinks to high heaven here. The finance office – under the management of Harry Rilling – has botched this process repeatedly – and continues to do so. Everyone seems to take the blame – except where the proverbial buck should stop – with the mayor. He “doesn’t discuss personnel matters in public”, well I do. Harry – you should be fired.

    The common council signs off on this. It is time to hold them accountable. Silence and capitulation equals complicit. Bunk House meetings. Don’t ask questions. When will anyone get the courage to call this mismanagement and manipulation of the office for political purposes out for what it truly is? The cowardice is astonishing.

    1. I have clarified this article to show that Tax Collector Lisa Biagiarelli is responsible for the tax levy, not the Grand List. The tax levy, the tax dollars to be collected, is based on the based on the Grand List, a list of taxable property created by the Tax Assessor.
      Mr. Cooper’s quote is from the paragraph I adjusted and doesn’t read that way anymore.

  5. Lisa Brinton

    Embarrassing, but not surprising under this mayor and financially illiterate (save CPA Meek) council & BOE. Norwalk can’t keep track of it’s Grand List (essentially its bank account) for a whole host of reasons. Makes it tricky at budget time; but this has been the modus operandi for nearly a decade.

    Density, apartment tax abatements, credits, lawsuits, bonding the new NHS, Hatch & Bailey vs Ely, etc. have ALL taken a toll on debt service and operating expenses. When the dust settles, it’ll be everyone else’s fault, but the guy in charge, Harry.

    The number of city employees and Democrats taken out by him exceeds any of us from the opposition. He has more in common with Trump than anyone will admit. Many holding office: elected, employed or appointed, will be thrown under the bus or gone out of conscious well before he’s ever ousted.

  6. Lisa Brinton

    Oops… meant conscience, but being ‘unconscious’ probably applies to a few in as well.

  7. Nora King

    Ana – he is the assessor. Of course, he would need to be on city property. Call every assessor in CT. None of them are working remotely anymore. Briefly with Covid. They are responsible for the valuation of any tax or tax-exempt property in the city. 50 percent of our documents and data is still not online. This remote stuff is out of control. You should not be appointed or on a committee, if you can’t show up. I can see that sometimes you need to zoom in but not for important public hearings. Assessors are interacting with taxpayers and business professionals on a daily basis. They better be in the office to deal with the people that have a stake in what is being taxed.

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