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?
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.
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.
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!!”