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.