NORWALK, Conn. — It’s a tale of two Norwalks in this year’s Mayor’s race, just like the two preceding it. If you have any doubts just watch this week’s Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce debate.
Incumbent Democratic Mayor Harry Rilling touts a stable tax rate under his eight years at the helm and sees a vibrant community “growing the right way” with sensible development in the urban core and near the train stations. Republican opponent Jonathan Riddle accuses Rilling of poor leadership, predicts that property taxes will increase if Rilling is reelected and alleges “a declining business climate” and a “traffic disaster.”
Riddle, a former banker come entrepreneurial hopeful who moved here in 2015, and Rilling, former Norwalk Police Chief and a city lifer, met Wednesday morning for the Chamber’s debate, this time held online only and moderated by Kristin Okesson, senior vice president of Connoisseur Media.
“I don’t know what Norwalk my opponent has lived in for these past few years. But the one that I’ve spent my entire life living and working in is a thriving, vibrant community,” Rilling said.
“Harry is out of touch with my generation and generation coming up. Whatever outdated textbook he is using, they’re no longer in tune with the future of this city. I fear for the future of the city if he is allowed to continue,” Riddle said.
Norwalk is growing and “people are starting to look at Norwalk differently than they used to many years ago,” Rilling said. “…I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I will not for political purposes exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
“I feel like I’m in Groundhog Day,” Riddle said, pointing out that Rilling said similar things two and four years ago, calling it, “recycled messages.” He said, “Harry, if you’re gonna quote Reagan, you might as well say the quote from him and give him credit, because he can’t take it as your own. But I will say, I’ll quote Reagan, ‘There you go, again, Harry.’”
To improve the business climate, “We need to leverage our location, improve our traffic disaster in order to make Norwalk even more attractive, as well as improve our schools,” Riddle said.
“I’m not sure my opponent realizes it, but over the past year and a half, over 400 new businesses have opened in Norwalk. That’s during the pandemic,” Rilling said. “I think we’re doing quite well. We also have a city-wide traffic study ongoing right now. We’ve hired a traffic and parking person so that we can do the best we can and make things better. Are we perfect? No, but we’re great. And we will continue to get better.”
“After eight years, I think we’ve seen a decline in the business climate here in Norwalk,” Riddle replied. “We’ve seen massive businesses leave Norwalk, and Priceline is looking to exit. Diageo left, along with it, a lot of jobs.”
He said, “The Parking Authority has been a thorn in every single resident’s side.” He’d promote free parking to drive business to local storefronts, “where right now people don’t want to go into the downtown areas because of the horrible parking situation, as well as the traffic.”
Rilling replied, “Parking is a challenge in any community. The business community has asked us not to put free parking in the downtown area, because what was happening was people who live in that area, or people who work in that area at some of the local restaurants and shops, would park in the free parking spaces and remain there all day.”
Plus, there’s a traffic study underway and a new department of Transportation, Mobility and Parking, Rilling said.
“We’re trying to develop around our urban core develop around our train stations, smart development, the right kind of development so that people wouldn’t have to rely so heavily on vehicles,” Rilling said.
Riddle replied, “Routinely, I’ve heard ‘we’re doing a study, we’re doing a study, we’re doing a study.’ And this was true two years ago, this was true four years ago. It’s always a study, there’s no action being taken, and people are fed up.”
He continued, “I’m going to take action as mayor, I’m going to fix these problems immediately. We’re not going to be doing studies and endless studies, and we’re not going to be putting density in our downtown areas. We’re going to thoughtfully redevelop and put the proper buildings that we want.”
“My opponent talks about fixing things but he never comes up with details,” Rilling said. “How is he going to fix things? So easy to sit there and say ‘I’m gonna fix this, I’m going to fix that.’ You know, this is a very complex city, we have a lot of things going on. A lot of work needs to be done. We’re moving forward. And you know, we do everything we possibly can to make this city better.”
Riddle said other cities have two-hour time limits on free parking, and if you’re caught exceeding it, you get a ticket.
“Once you get a ticket for parking overtime, then that’s not free parking, is it?” Rilling replied.
Okesson asked what specific initiatives Norwalk might pick up from other cities.
Norwalk doesn’t need to replicate other cities, other cities need to replicate Norwalk and their leaders know it, they are asking for advice, Rilling said.
“We formed a cabinet government, which is much more efficient. We’ve downsized our employee workforce, we’re saving money. We’re doing the things that we need to do to identify where the problems exist,” Rilling said.
Riddle said he’d be surprised if other city leaders are envious.
“You know, eight years of growing government is true to a Democrat policy,” he said. “I’ve never met a Democrat that doesn’t want a bigger government. And saving money, yeah, if you’re saving money but also increasing the budget $80 million each year, that’s not really saving money.”
Rilling replied, “I ask the people of city: check your tax bill from 2014 and compare it with your tax bill of 2022. Across the city, the average tax rate went down.”
“It’s gone down a de minimis amount,” Riddle said. “But when you, again, when you’re talking about increasing the annual budget of government, that’s not saving money, that’s spending more money.”
Riddle said a revaluation is coming and property values have gone up tremendously due to the pandemic “as we took in New York refugees, who are fleeing the communist state of New York.”
While it’s good that the real estate market has been “revived,” he said, “if this administration is allowed to continue, what’s going to happen is your property taxes are going to go up, because your property values are going to increase the amount of tax revenue the city gets, and they’re going to spend more if you give them more.”
Rilling replied, “Property tax is one of the most regressive taxes you can have. And unfortunately, it’s controlled by the state of Connecticut. But when your property values go up, the mill rate through strong fiscal management can come down… your property values going up doesn’t necessarily equate to your property taxes going up. And it’s through smart growth, smart development.”
The grand list has increased by $1.6 billion since he became Mayor, he said. The regressive property tax needs to be reformed, but that would happen in the State legislature.
Riddle shifted to the Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) formula. “We need to work with our State Representatives to get our proper ECS funding for the education system,” he said. “…Since we have had an influx of so many English learners, the state needs to pay its fair share.”
“We have that conversation on a regular basis, at least weekly with the state legislators, and how we can get more money for our ECS,” Rilling replied. “And it’s a tough one, because there are a lot of other towns around that … get a lot more and they they’re not ready to change the formula. We are getting more money than we have in the past, thanks to our state delegation. And I appreciate that. And we’re continuing to work to see what we can do to make that happen.”
As the conversation moved to American Rescue Plan Act funds, Rilling touted the recently revealed plans and Riddle said, “I really didn’t hear how he solicited public input on how to use that money.”
Rilling mentioned the 150 projects his team plans to accomplish with the ARP funding (combined with State grants and capital budget money), the “kinds of things that are going to create jobs.”
Riddle said, “We shouldn’t have been waiting for COVID funds to do this. For the last eight years, there’s been a tremendous amount of neglect of our infrastructure of our roads, our sidewalks. And that you can’t just simply fix that by getting more money. That is a onetime shot. It requires proper management going forward.”
Debate about coronavirus
Riddle said he’d eliminate Norwalk’s mask mandate the first day he is Mayor. The public needs to be educated with “an understanding of the actual science, not this fear mongering political science that we have seen nationwide… Talk to your personal doctor, understand what the virus is and protect yourself.”
Rilling replied, “This has been a challenging time for us. And I’ve made the decisions that are tough decisions, that are not popular with some people and that’s OK, I get it. People have different opinions. But when you walk into a doctor’s office throughout the city of Norwalk and other places, they want you to wear a mask.”
He said, “If you look around right now, there’s another variant coming… we don’t know who’s vaccinated going into one of our stores, but we know there are children in there, that are not vaccinated, we have to protect them as well.”
Riddle said a study in Bangladesh showed cloth masks reduced transmission by 10% and medical masks reduced transmission by 15%. “Does it help? Yes, in a very small amount.”
“I think he just proved masks work,” Rilling replied. “They are not 100% effective; 15- 20% effective, that is fine. This is the deadliest pandemic to ever hit this country. Over 750,000 people have died from this coronavirus.”
Riddle said the Delta variant infects vaccinated people, and, “Children under 12 have literally 0% risk to COVID right now.”
“I don’t know what numbers Mr. Riddle is looking at, but we have seen a significant increase in cases among young people and cases among children under 11 years old. You can verify those facts,” Rilling said.
Riddle replied, “The fact of the matter is that Europe has been dealing with the Delta virus for a very long time, well ahead of us, and their children have been unmasked and in schools, and have not been vaccinated and they don’t have a problem…These kids are resilient, they’re able to handle the virus and it’s just like the flu for them. The fact of the matter is the damage that’s being done with the mask is irreparable.”
Okesson said, “The Wall Street area has been in need of redevelopment and revitalization for a very long time. What would you do to ensure this area receives the attention it deserves?”
“You’re right,” Rilling said. “Since the flood of 1955, that’s been a struggling area, we have to do a better job. We have a development right now that’s waiting. All it takes is for one person to withdraw an appeal of the Zoning Commission, and that project, which will bring boots on the ground, young people… can start tomorrow.”
“Perhaps Harry is afraid of saying the person’s name. It’s Jason Milligan. And you know the truth be told, Jason has done more for that area than this city has done in the last eight years,” Riddle said. “The Tyvek Temple is an erected monument to Harry’s failure to move that street forward and to redevelop that area.”
He mentioned Byron Sanchez’ stalled attempt to open a bakery in one of Milligan’s storefronts.
“Here’s an Ecuadorian immigrant who came here… spent $100,000 to build his bakery,” Riddle said. “And they’re not giving him a certificate of occupancy because of a Redevelopment Agency argument over his facade, this is big government in play.”
Rilling said, “This is a very, very difficult situation. And we want to support the baker, we’ve met with the baker, we’ve explained things. Again, one small permit, applied for by the building owner, the baker can open tomorrow.”
Rilling said Head of the Harbor South put 60 apartments right on the water, and businesses are starting to come in.
“We need the Redevelopment Agency to really get in there, dig in their heels and make sure that we attract businesses. I know that our Chief of Community and Economic Development has been very focused on that area,” he said.
Riddle said, “We need to get down to brass tacks, we need to stop being obstructionist … remove the ridiculous back-in parking, I’ve never seen that in my life, and reestablish a new business development and progress with a vision that’s going to bring in businesses and make that area vibrant again.”
Rilling said $2 million in ARP funds will go toward Wall Street infrastructure, “redoing streets, redoing sidewalks.”
Riddle said, “Without the Redevelopment Agency getting out of the way, that’s going to be a waste of $2 million, just like the city wastes money constantly.”
Fire the staff?
After Rilling’s multiple mentions of various “Chiefs,” Riddle said, “He’s delegated away all his duties and abdicated his responsibilities that the city charges him …poor leadership is poor leadership.”
“I guess, my opponent would, if he were to win, he would be firing all the staff because he would be doing it all,” Rilling said. “You know, I meet with my staff, I direct everything they do.”
Rilling continued, “I’ve hired professional people. I’ve gotten rid of that good old boy club that existed prior to me. I’ve hired professional people, going on nationwide searches to bring in the people that are most suited to set Norwalk in the right direction. And we are succeeding.”
Riddle replied, “You need a proper team around you. So no, I wouldn’t be firing everybody. That’s ridiculous. I would be empowering people as well as working hand in hand with them.”
He said, “I’ll state right now that I won’t be taking a raise, if the Common Council wants to give me one.”
In closing statements, Rilling said, “He’s been here, what, five, maybe six-seven years, and now he’s ready to save us. You know, it’s easy for him to promise the moon. The truth is he’s never had to make the real very difficult decisions that I’ve had to make in the past eight years, especially the last year.”
Riddle said, “Today, our country is at a crossroads where there is no more middle ground. You’re either with the left or you’re not. Harry, while a good man, will blindly follow the mandates from Washington, I will not. I will always have Norwalk best interest in heart, no shutdowns, no mandates, we will follow the actual studies and science, not politics.”
You can watch the debate here.