NORWALK, Conn. – The city officials outnumbered the residents Wednesday night at Mayor Harry Rilling’s second monthly Mayor’s Night Out, held this time in the basement of the East Norwalk Library – something Rilling apologized for when it was called to his attention the room in not handicap accessible.
About 20 citizens braved the frigid air and showed up to join two dozen city officials for the question-and-answer session that meandered from defibrillators to crime to revaluation and recycling.
Rilling played moderator, fielding the questions and tossing most to panelists that included the heads of several city departments.
District C Common Council member Michelle Maggio spoke of the need for defibrillators in the schools. Maggio, the chairwoman of the council’s Health, Welfare and Public Safety Committee, said it is important that all the schools have the heart-starting equipment available, a trend that is sweeping the nation, both in the public and private sectors. She was backed up by fellow council member Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) and her committee city staff person, Assistant City Clerk Erin Herring.
Deputy Schools Superintendent Tony Daddona said the schools are not so equipped because the devices have not been in the budget. “The state law says you have to have them if you can afford them,” he said.
Kimmel, recently retired as a teacher in New York, said NYC schools had defibrillators, and the cost – about $800 each – included training in their use. Herring said her son has a heart problem and she did not want him to be the first Norwalk student to suffer because the schools didn’t have them.
While violent crime is down in Norwalk, some people expressed concern about what they believe is drug dealing and use in their areas. They spoke of cars parked on darkened streets and finding evidence – such as small bags used for drugs – the next day.
Police Chief Tom Kulhawik said anyone concerned should call the police station and a patrol would check it out. In response to a complaint that a crackdown on crime in one area of the city had pushed the problems to East Norwalk, Kulhawik said “There is no evidence” that has happened. The comments opened a discussion of community policing during which East Norwalk resident Diane Cece and Councilman David Watts (D-District A) said community policing, to them, meant opening substations in various neighborhoods, giving the police more of a presence and a place for residents to go to report crimes.
Kulhawik and Rilling, who was chief of police for 17 years, both said substations are a bad idea, costing the city a lot of money and taking officers off the street to sit behind a desk. Kulhawik said it is better to have officers getting out and walking the neighborhoods where there are problems, meeting the residents, getting to know who’s who and providing a tangible presence.
Kulhawik was asked if Norwalk officers were using the infamous “stop and frisk” policy that was controversial in former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York City.
“It’s illegal,” Kulhawik said. “We don’t do it.”
He was given an anecdote about a group of young men in South Norwalk who were “playing ball, and some cops got out of unmarked cars” and patted them down. No arrests were made, the speaker said.
Kulhawik said it was likely that there had been a report that involved suspects that looked similar to the group that was frisked, giving the officers a legal right to check them out. Both he and Rilling urged everyone to call the chief if they see any officers conducting themselves in a manner that seems improper, and the complaint will be investigated.
Cece said the city should revisit with the state the decision to widen and lower East Avenue to allow 18-wheel trucks to pass under the railroad bridge at the East Norwalk rail station.
“I’m not sure that project has been vetted to the satisfaction of the community,” she said.
If you want an area safe for pedestrians and bicyclists, she said, studies show you want narrower lanes and traffic that moves slower.
“When we widen and lower East Avenue, we’re not only going to have more traffic, we’re going to have truck traffic, and we’re going to have traffic that speeds through, and it’s going to make it more dangerous than it is today. … This is not the path that preserves the character of our neighborhood. … We’re in the process of letting the state take three properties that, quite frankly, I don’t think the majority of East Norwalkers support. And they’re doing this despite the fact that our own Public Works Committee voted not to authorize the prior mayor to sign” the agreement to allow the state to proceed.
“The thing is just getting pushed through. I’m asking everyone in the room who has some responsibility for it to step back.”
A South Norwalk resident said her taxing district was giving residents no relief when they could not pay their energy bills, unlike CL&P, which has a hardship program. She said they “literally tell people they are not a public utility. … We’ve heard of people freezing in their homes” after their power was turned off, she said.
Department of Public Works head Hal Alvord said, “The first, second and third taxing districts each have their own elected board of commissioners, and they have public meetings just like the mayor and the Common Council have, and it’s open to the public. So people who are served by those services can go to those meetings and make their concerns known by addressing the commissioners who run those taxing districts.”
The taxing districts are government entities, Finance Director Tom Hamilton said, so they are not subject to the same laws state laws that govern the public utilities.
In answer to a question about the single-stream recycling program that began last spring with the arrival of the large bins, Alvord said recycling is up about 49 percent.
“The first week it was up about 65 percent, then it came down and it’s around 49 percent now,” he said, adding that the city recycles about 6,000 tons a year. “A city this size should do twice that,” he said, and pointed out that every ton recycled saves the city $102 in trash disposal fees.
South Norwalk resident Ernie Dumas asked if the city would consider conducting a bulk waste community clean-up as it had in the past, with large bins being placed in public places for residents to dump big items.
“Hal and I will be talking about that,” Rilling said.
“When we did that, illegal dumping went down considerably,” Alvord said.
Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs Director Mike Mocciae’s work was praised by a resident and Rilling before Mocciae gave an update on what’s up at the beaches. Among other things, he said his department is trying to finish work on the jetty, seawall and the pier at Calf Pasture Beach, but weather has been a problem. He said he expects to be able to pour concrete to finish the seawall shortly, and the rest of the pilings for the pier should be driven next week.
During a brief lull in the public questions early in the meeting, Rilling asked Hamilton to talk a bit about the property revaluation. Hamilton said that it is important for residents who feel their property has been improperly assessed to move quickly to appeal. He said the first step is an informal appeal, and, if that does not satisfy the property owner, there will be a short window in March for a formal appeal. Once that window closes, he said, the revaluation is final.
Because most properties lost value, the grand list has been reduced, he said, which means the mill rate will increase. He explained that the city still has to raise enough money to cover its budget, and, with lower property values, that means a high rate.
“Just because your property value went down does not mean your taxes are going down,” he said. “The break-even point is 9 percent. If your property value went down more than 9 percent, your taxes will go down. But if the value went down less than 9 percent, your taxes will be going up.”
After the two-hour meeting wrapped up, Rilling expressed satisfaction with the event.
“I’m happy with it,” he said. “There weren’t as many people as the first time, but everyone got to ask their questions and we had some good discussions.”