Norwalk tax assessor defends his department after consultants reveal issues
NORWALK, Conn. — A newly released efficiency study of Norwalk’s government departments has painted an unflattering picture of the Tax Assessor’s Office, portraying it as “lacking in sufficient supervision and expertise.”
The study’s authors, Evergreen Solutions LLC, cited personnel shortages, incompatible software, and remote working arrangements for multiple staff members, including Tax Assessor William Ford, who has reportedly been working from Vermont.
In two years at the helm, Ford held a total of two staff meetings, the report says. “Due to the animosity of staff and the lack of interaction between the different categories (motor vehicles, versus personal property, etc.), he determined they were not useful and discontinued the practice.”
While Evergreen found that Ford had fulfilled his duties “while working remotely and communicating via email and text messages,” their report recommends the City “alter remote work schedules to bring more guidance to the staff and hands on expertise to the Tax Assessor’s department.”
The report also noted that an upgrade of the software used for mass appraisals does not interface with that used for managing address data for system mailings, requiring double input in some instances.
When the report was written, the department had an eight-person staff, including Ford “and three Assessment Analysts covering personal property, motor vehicles, and real estate property inspections and valuations,” Evergreen said.
Assessment Analyst Simon Wake left in November to become Town Assessor elsewhere, Ford said. Another staff member left this month due to a health issue.
Norwalk isn’t the only municipality in the state with vacancies in its Assessor’s office. Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz recently commented that it’s “exceedingly hard in the state of Connecticut to find good senior assessor personnel.” Evergreen concurred.
“The assessing profession is very unique, in that individuals do not go to college for Assessing like they would for careers in fields like Accounting and Engineering. Many are former appraisers and finance individuals, who discovered their careers during downturns in the markets,” Ford said Sunday.
He continued, “This is the most difficult time to hire because of the ‘Great Resignation’ where people have retired/resigned in the greatest numbers in history. There are numerous vacancies throughout Connecticut in the Assessing departments, and in the private sector. The Connecticut Association of Assessing Officers website lists about 30 current openings, which is twice as many as normal. In addition, there are at least 10 jurisdictions with Interim Assessors in the state.”
“Both positions are being bid to internal staff first. If a suitable candidate is not available, the positions will be advertised to the public,” Ford explained. “During these vacancies, part–time assistance was provided by assessment personnel from other jurisdictions after hours and weekends.”
Ford had been City Assessor in Worcester, Mass., population 180,000, for 10 years when he was hired in February 2020 to replace Michael Stewart, who retired the previous summer. Assistant Tax Assessor William O’Brien resigned at about the same time. His position remains unfilled, its duties – managing commercial real estate property inspections and valuations – being handled by a consultant.
The departure of the two ranking assessors followed a citywide revaluation in 2018, about which Mayor Harry Rilling said he had “serious concerns,” that resulted in 1,575 appeals. A backlog of roughly 450 appeals were inherited by the incoming Ford.
Despite his unfamiliarity with Connecticut laws when hired, Ford told NancyOnNorwalk that he and Brian McCann of the Legal Department successfully resolved nearly 90 percent of them, “through reasonable settlements, trials when a settlement was not able to be retained at a reasonable value and through withdrawals and dismissals.”
Ford also maintained that he has met all legal deadlines, rules, and requirements of the state’s Office of Policy and Management (OPM) and has attended “all in person meetings as needed.”
Regarding staff meetings, Ford said, “I determined based upon my experience supervising government employees that a one-on-one approach of management and coaching would work best in the City of Norwalk Assessing Division. Interaction with senior staff being more frequent and fruitful, and having them direct clerks as needed.”
In signing on as Norwalk’s Tax Assessor on the eve of the pandemic, Ford said he was “unable to immediately make the transition of home ownership to Connecticut.” Much of his work involves court appearances. “The Tax Session of the Connecticut Superior Court instituted remote trials and pretrials for the entirety of the COVID pandemic, since March 2020, and continuing today,” Ford said.
City Hall was closed by Rilling in March 2020. It reopened on a limited basis in September 2020 and reopened entirely in May 2021. Ford said each employee working remotely satisfied the rules and requirements for remote work as determined by the City of Norwalk. “Decisions are based on specific needs of the department, the individuals and their specific responsibilities. The Assessing staff with health issues permitted to work remotely were based on each situation and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) laws prohibit further discussions.”
Four staff members hold clerical positions responsible for valuing property, entering data, analyzing and processing information, handling phone calls and walk-in inquiries, and the like, according to Evergreen. “They are to receive instructions from their supervisor and report work accomplished on a weekly basis,” the report said. “They work without any supervision most of the time and have sought out resources at the state level to get questions answered.”
The role of the Tax Assessor is also multifaceted, ranging from planning, organizing, and administering activities and statutory responsibilities of the Assessor’s office to supervising and participating in the valuing of all taxable property to establish the Grand List. The Tax Assessor supervises subordinates in the areas of appraisal, classification and recording of taxable property, and supervises inspections of existing and improved properties as well as those under construction. The Assessor also handles legal challenges to assessment. In Ford’s case, that has translated into supervising litigation of hundreds of court challenges stemming from the 2018 Revaluation.
When Ford was hired, Attorney Adam Blank told NancyOnNorwalk that a non-Connecticut appraiser would face “a steep learning curve.”
While the City job description requires Norwalk’s Tax Assessors to earn the Certified Connecticut Municipal Assessor designation within two years of being appointed, Evergreen noted that Ford has not yet attained his CCMA, not due to a dereliction of duty, but because “the COVID pandemic cancelled all certification opportunities for the first 18 months of the Assessor’s tenure.”
“The Assessor has completed two of the three courses required for certification receiving excellent grades in each and is working with the Office of Policy Management to complete the Certification,” the report says.
In an email to NancyOnNorwalk, Ford wrote: “I have been in the assessing profession for over 25 years in cities twice the size of Norwalk. I have attained designations in each state I have worked and from national organizations. The Connecticut Association of Assessing Officers and OPM cancelled all training for 18 months, which delayed the possibility of attaining the CCMA designation, but I will, after this October when the next exam is provided.”
Updated, 2:16 p.m.: More information.
David Osler March 28, 2022 at 8:56 am
If Ford can fix at the apartment that would be amazing but the department has issues look at the 2018 situation a lot of it never got resolved it simply got buried with the covid pandemic mostly because a large chunk of people weren’t willing to go to court over about $5,000 over 5 years if you look at it from a payment perspective as a taxpayer I know my evaluation was $100,000 more than it should have been even with the ridiculous increase in property prices now my appraisal is just a little above what the market is at right now my house has been overvalued for decades when I purchase the place 10 years ago the town refused repeatedly to negotiate on my assessment for a very large variety of reasons and none of them made any sense they even required me to delay me closing by a couple days and then proceeded to add almost $200,000 at the time to above what I paid on their assessment I had zero instruments in my property transfer state law is pretty clear on that one they brought down a little bit when I refuse to pay and went to brinkmanship with a tax sale.
David Muccigrosso March 28, 2022 at 3:34 pm
I’m always amazed when boring old good-governance-issue pieces like this one get zero traction here on NON among the usual cast commenters.
Always happy to whine about “taxes”, Harry’s corruption, or construction “turning us into Stamford!!111”, but when we actually have a problem with good government, it’s crickets. C’mon guys, this one SHOULD be EASY! They’re messing up your taxes! It’s hitting your wallets! It’s government waste and inefficiency at its worst!
But I guess there isn’t enough CRT going on in the assessor’s office for y’all to be interested. Quick, Harry, order up an implicit bias training!
David Muccigrosso March 28, 2022 at 4:02 pm
On a serious note, I don’t care how bad it is elsewhere in the state. This is a critical, basic function of government, and it’s unacceptable to be understaffed and dysfunctional.
Part of resolving our intense partisan differences starts with issues like these. Better assessments help us keep cost of living down and makes sure everyone’s paying their fair share. That shouldn’t be an ideological or partisan issue.
jlg March 28, 2022 at 5:54 pm
trying to get an appeal to look at a basic math mistake (that they made) yielded no fruit. I have to ask, do they ever make mistakes that result in less liability?
Mitch Adis March 28, 2022 at 9:52 pm
If Bill Ford is working from Vermont, he should be paid a Vermont salary! Also, is he paying Vermont income tax?
Taxpayer March 29, 2022 at 2:16 am
“lacking in sufficient supervision and expertise.”
Why exactly has he been working remote for so long? Get back to work people seriously this is embarrassing and people clearly take advantage of remote work arrangements. This is what you get!
Milly March 29, 2022 at 5:04 am
Is Mr. Ford ever going to move to Norwalk? Is he deterred by Norwalk’s high property tax?
Piberman March 29, 2022 at 4:15 pm
Readers might want to look for the web site of Evergreen Solutions. And see if they’re one of the major league well established major regional/national consulting firms for City property valuation. And perhaps ask why they were chosen.
Having been involved with prominent consulting firms on both sides of the table I’ve yet to find one that advertised itself as making “efficiency studies”. Ordinarily management consulting firms are hired to improve management, reduce expenses, assist in gaining new clients, assisting hiring senior talent through professional search or securing a personnel change with an unfavorable report.
The phrase “efficiency studies” seems something we’d expect used in educational circles where defining and seeking much new management remains a perennial “quest”.
Nancy Guenther Chapman March 29, 2022 at 4:34 pm
Peter, I included a link to Evergreen Solutions in the first story about the efficiency study being released. It’s https://www.consultevergreen.com/
I’ve now inserted it in this story.
Piberman March 29, 2022 at 4:37 pm
Re fair share can you help us with how renters with children attending our pubic schools – at $20,000 per student – can possibly be taxed in their “fair share” ?
While City rentals are just a few thousand monthly and apartment owners reap the advantages of depreciation in reducing their tax liabilities.
Or a retired family having sent their kids off 30 years ago paying about $10,000 yearly in real estate taxes. Those retired families are paying dramatically more than their fair share. Especially the increasing numbers of retired families paying $15,000 or $20,000 in taxes annually.
Retiring in a community where one has raised a family is typically challenging. But its especially challenging in Norwalk where City Hall has encouraged renters claiming (seriously too) that “renters bring growth.”
I’ve been following the professional economic literature on urban development for many decades. And I’ve yet to find good examples of how encouraging renters at the expense of homeowners ever “brings growth”. If it did we’d expect to see other cities emphasizing “renters over homeowners”. Encouraging renters simply puts more tax burden on existing homeowners. And makes a city ever more transient. Especially a City like Norwalk with its small business property component.
We shouldn’t forget investors build apartment buildings because its good business. Their tenants don’t pay the full costs of City services. Nor do the apartment owners.
It’s the City homeowners who pay the lion share of City outlays. Especially in a City like Norwalk which historically has a small commercial base. As evident by our long shabby Downtown with its small retail stores.
CT’s 3 major depressed cities are “renter’s cities” with renters overshadowing remaining home owners paying truly punitive real estate taxes. By encouraging ever more renters we know Norwalk’s future. More renters, ever higher homeowner property taxes, fewer retired homeowners and demands for more schools to house our growing renter population children.
Recent estimates that $500 million are needed to upgrade existing schools and perhaps another $500 million for new schools (much higher if 30 yr financing costs are included) ought sharpen our public discussion of our “enthusiasm for renters”.
Our City leaders ought be concerned that continued encouragement of renters simply encourages hard pressed homeowners to leave the City making Norwalk ever more transient than it already is. And higher real estate taxes depress City housing values giving retired folks a double whammy – lower prices when selling and higher taxes while living here.
Our City leaders need understand the old adage – “the power to tax is the power to destroy property values”. And if they truly believe “renters bring growth” then please explain why our Poverty Rate remains stuck at 10%.
Michael Skinner March 30, 2022 at 2:14 pm
Let me get this correct. The head of the tax department has been working from Vermont these past 2 years and Harry does nothing about it? Harry runs the city just like he did the police department.. a sh*t show
Nancy Guenther Chapman March 30, 2022 at 5:47 pm
To clarify, William Ford is the tax assessor. He’s not head of a “tax department;” Lisa Biagiarelli is tax collector. Both work under Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz.
Tysen Canevari March 30, 2022 at 8:33 pm
The mayor works from his condo and this guy does too. What’s the difference? Lol. Welcome to Harry’s new administration. Oh, and his parks and rec has to outsource biddy basketball. Now that’s a joke
simon April 1, 2022 at 8:58 am
I take issue with the Phrase “lack of expertise” when I left Norwalk Assessor’s office because I was offered a “one in a million golden opportunity” the staff in the the office were hitting all report deadlines, they are all Highly intelligent, competent and articulate individuals with DECADES of working experience and would be an asset to any employer.
regardless of the fact some of the staff had to work from home during the pandemic due to health issues, goals were met, reports filed on time, these guys are awesome through and through and deserve more respect
Piberman April 4, 2022 at 5:09 pm
So after a consultants critical report is publicly released – an unusual step to be sure – will our City tax Department be turned inside out ? Who knows ? Will the Chief Tax Assessor see the handwriting on the wall and secure a new assignment elsewhere ?
Or is City Hall waiting to see which way the wind blows ? One thing is sure. This is not the way Westport and our surrounding towns do business. If City Hall needs an outside consultant before pulling the chain we have more problems than just our problem pubic schools. Professional City management means acting professionally to City employees. Hiring a consultant firm to complain about a senior City manager in public is shabby business.
Jason April 26, 2022 at 9:37 am
It seems Norwalk has hired an assistant assessor, Mr. Paul Gorman. Welcome!