NORWALK, Conn. – Mayor Harry Rilling and challenger Lisa Brinton duked it out Monday in a debate-like forum before a standing-room-only crowd in the City Hall community room.
Brinton often looked amused as she delivered many jabs about what she described as errors, bad policies and/or declining conditions, presenting many statistics to support her claims. Rilling was relaxed, confident and poised as she repeatedly slammed him, standing by his strategy to develop Norwalk’s urban core, touting progress in Norwalk Public Schools and smiling only occasionally, at one point cracking a grin when Brinton claimed that he is scared of Citibank.
Video of entire event, by Harold Cobin, at end of story
The crowd was civil, respectful and quiet throughout the hour-long discussion hosted by the League of Women Voters of Norwalk.
Rilling is a three-term Democrat first elected in 2013, seeking reelection. Brinton is an unaffiliated voter endorsed by the Republican Party, who challenged Rilling two years ago as part of a four-candidate field. Brinton described herself as the “David” in a David and Goliath battle and painted herself as a capable businesswoman who can handle the challenges; Rilling depicted himself as an experienced statesman, in his closing statement saying, “Decisions at the mayor’s level or not easy. There’s a lot of layers in city government. It’s not easy to say, ‘you run your city like a business.’”
The first question from moderator Jean Rabinow touched upon a hot button issue: “Considering the development that’s going on in Norwalk over the past 10 years, what is your vision for the future?
“It’s interesting because there was a team that came in today to Norwalk to look at some potential investments that they were willing to make. And the comment that they made was Norwalk is the hottest city on the east coast,” Rilling said, going on to describe the city as a desirable community but cautioning that neighborhood integrity needs to be maintained.
The way to grow the Grand List and keep the character of the city is to develop the urban core with a focus on transportation hubs, he said.
“Despite the news claims of being a hot city. We do not need to turn into a Westchester County where $400,000 house here is a $15,000 tax bill,” Brinton said. “I want to focus on stronger leadership to protect our quality of life. I want to focus on the financial management chosen who was profiting off of your city Norwalk, and I want to defend us against special interests and the state.”
She asked how Norwalk will pay for growth when it’s heavily reliant on property taxes, with a Grand List that grew 12% while expenses grew by 24%.
“Despite all this hot growth, we use the Rainy Day Fund to fund the operating budget,” she said. “What’s the healthy balance between home ownership and multi-unit apartments? And my concern, quite frankly is the amount of money that we may have wasted over the last year 10 years…. I want to talk about the various decisions that have been made over the last six years that have cost Norwalkers dearly.
Rilling replied that he is proud of Norwalk’s fiscal management.
“During this fiscal year, in five out of six districts, the median priced home, the taxes went down,” he said. “Not only that, we were able to reduce our mill rate by 10%. We have the lowest mill rate of any city our size of the state of Connecticut.”
Rilling didn’t mention the city’s Triple A bond rating; Brinton said that’s what’s usually referred to.
“No, I disagree. The taxpayers of Norwalk have a Triple A bond rating,” she said, slamming the recent property revaluation as resulting in 1,800 appeals and 400 lawsuits.
Growing the Grand List?
Rabinow asked the candidates how they’d grow the tax base.
“It’s a combination of what I call prosperity and reform,” Brinton said, advocating to “restore” Manresa Island to a marina and support Robert Kunkel’s plan for a catamaran shipping service to Long Island. She charged that there are no jobs here, and, “The business we’ve been in lately has been the apartment business. Meanwhile, we have let small businesses escape.”
A potato chip maker got no interest from the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, a restaurant went to Black Rock and a new location could have been found for the Brew House, she said.
“Growing the Grand List was the question and it is by developing the urban core,” Rilling said.
Young people want to move here, and you need retail and residential in the same space, he asserted. “As they come in the businesses will follow.”
“I’d like to know what our occupancy rate is with all of the apartments in the urban core,” Brinton said. “I know one of them that probably is the most occupied is the Waypointe. But I also know that that’s up for sale, probably as a result of the reevaluation has just happened. Build it and flip it.”
She shifted the conversation to the city’s most visible problem: the stalled Wall Street Place development referred to as “POKO.”
“If we’re trying develop our urban core, then why are we trying to give 15 years of tax credits to the POKO building that will saddle this city for 15 years, and produce a $6 million development fee for the builder?” Brinton asked. “If we’re so hot, why are we having to give away our money as taxpayers?”
“There have been no tax credits,” Rilling said, explaining that POKO’s Land Disposition Agreement was drafted years before he became Mayor.
“We are working diligently to try to come up with a plan for the Wall Street Place that will be in the best interest of our community, making sure that we get it right,” Rilling said. “And right now, it’s, as I say, it’s in litigation right now. So I’m not at a real liberty to discuss it.”
Speaking of which
Rabinow asked the candidates if they support the plan to restart Wall Street Place.
Rilling said there’s no plan in front of the Common Council now, that in discussions City leaders learned that the public wants the Garden Cinemas saved and for the proposed design to reflect the neighborhood’s character.
“We listen to the people. We went back to the drawing board. We’re waiting for some further information relative to how those things are going to move forward. … That’s what responsible government is all about,” Rilling said.
Brinton charged, “The deal was going forward up until I got a cross endorsement by the Republican Party and the mayor knew that this would be a one on one race, and it’s been tabled. It’s been tabled until after the election.”
The Council tabled the plan in July. Rilling said it was being tabled until early September, but the Council has not taken up the topic in public. Mediation talks are underway with real estate broker Jason Milligan, who owns key property in the area and has talked publicly about proposing a deal to build a parking garage directly behind Wall Street Place.
Brinton continued to say that she does not support the proposal as explained to the Council in July, decrying to $800,000 an apartment pricetag spelled out by proposed redevelopers John and Todd McClutchy, and their plan to qualify for additional Low Income Housing Tax Credits.
Rilling replied, “You can rest assured that the city is working very diligently to try to make this the best project that we possibly can have. The problem right now is that we’re dealing with one of the largest lending institutions in the entire world…. So we have to sit down at the table, as responsible people, and talk about what we can do to make this the best project that can fit in Norwalk.”
The plan is to invest $4.5 million in the Wall Street area to make it vibrant again, Rilling said.
“Did you say that this was the largest institution in the world? Did I hear a hint of fear that you’re afraid of Citibank?” Brinton asked, describing her experience as “25 years in the corporate world, 20 years with AT&T and 15 years as a management consultant.”
“I would have absolutely no problem walking into Citibank and saying are you sure you want to hold Norwalk hostage over a project, a bad project,” she said. “They messed up, they gave a loan, it was defaulted. It’s their problem. It is not Norwalk’s.”
English Language Learners
Rabinow asked how they’d address the challenges of Norwalk schools, such as an influx of English Language Learners.
Brinton described her history as an education activist and said, “I’ve been working to close the achievement gap in this city for 15 years. That’s why we are the number one urban school district in the state.”
She recounted various school issues, including the challenge of Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) funding.
“We are now in a crisis situation in the number of children coming in, but bear in mind, Norwalk is the best district to be able to educate these children,” she said. “But we need help. So I would be promoting it with foundations, I would be going to corporations, I would be putting pressure back on the state.”
Rilling reminded everyone that not many years ago – during the Moccia administration – Concert Hall was routinely filled with angry parents during budget season. When he became Mayor, he established a good working relationship between the City and the Board of Education, and the Board’s strategic operating plan has been supported with budget increases, as well as the Board’s plan to build new schools and improve its existing buildings.
“Our Norwalk Public Schools is the most successful public school system right now in the state of Connecticut,” he said. “We have achievement gap index higher than any of those in our district representative group. And we have made some tremendous strides in reducing the achievement gap. And that’s because we work together with Board of Education.”
Rilling said, “We know that at the end of this fiscal year, the Board of Education will most likely have a surplus and we’ll be able to use that to offset any costs that we’re experiencing this year with the influx of the English Language Learners students.”
Rilling later said that U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Greenwich) has indicated he may find federal money to help fund the immigrants’ education. Brinton charged that Rilling hasn’t talked to the State Department of Education about the influx. Rilling said he had.
“We have to educate them. It’s the right thing to do,” Rilling said. “We welcome them and we want to help them achieve to their fullest potential.”
As time ran out, out of turn, Brinton asked, “What are you going to do, Mayor Rilling? What are you going to do?”
Rilling smiled and turned to Rabinow, shaking his head.
Brinton charged that Wall Street business owners are very upset about the recent changes to parking in the area – not only has reverse angle parking been installed but it’s not possible to park free on the street anymore.
The Norwalk Parking Authority didn’t consult the businesses and, “If I was elected mayor, I would be auditing our third-party agencies,” she said. “They are separate wards. They’re not accountable necessarily to the public, they have been appointed by the mayor.”
She also mentioned the changes this summer at Calf Pasture Beach and said, “This city is obsessed with parking, absolutely obsessed with it. I think that hurts business. Parking is supposed to encourage turnover, but that’s not our problem right now in Norwalk. Our problem is getting people into that (Wall Street) area. So I think that the policy was instituted prematurely.”
“The plan on Wall Street was implemented at the request of the …Wall Street Neighborhood Association, because the businesses down there did want turnover,” Rilling replied. “We found that a lot of people that were residents of the area, people that were employees of the area would take the parking places out on the street, and people couldn’t find a parking place down on Wall Street.”
There were “many public hearings,” it was advertised in the paper, and when it was implemented, “questions started to arise.”
“So I support working through that issue and trying to tweak it a little bit to make the parking a little bit more effective,” Rilling said. “Having a 30-minute free parking area where people can run into a store rather than have to pay. I spoke with a merchant who said he’d rather have the parking meters rather than the chaos.”
“Clearly there was communication gap between the Parking Authority and the Wall Street businesses when they instituted this plan,” Brinton said. “…We need to reexamine the practices of the party authority and make sure that it serves the businesses and the people.”
“Every day that I walk into this building, I’m proud of what we’ve done in the city of Norwalk and how we helped Norwalk grow and develop over the past six years,” Rilling said. “We have … achieved a tremendous amount by reorganizing city government, by funding our schools… by creating a city, a downtown area that people can be proud of.”
He continued, “You know, I don’t sit here tonight, expect or feeling entitled to your vote. I know every day that I walk into this building I have to earn your trust, your respect, and your confidence, knowing that I’m going to do the right thing, regardless of whether it’s the popular thing. Decisions at the mayor’s level are not easy. There’s a lot of layers in city government. It’s not easy to say you run your city like a business. There’s a lot of different things, a lot of different things have been taken into account….But I proven that I’m able to make those tough decisions.”
“This election is a referendum on the mayor’s policies and his definition of growth, and whether we’re moving in the right direction, or as I suggest, have been cherry picked by developers with tax credits, and oversized structures, bringing traffic congestion and impacting our quality of life, forcing longtime residents out due to rising costs,” Brinton said.
She touted her credentials as an independent on the Republican line.
“I hate political parties, but I hate single party rule even more,” she said. “Our democracy is built on sharing of ideas, and we’ve lost that with this mayor. We need checks and balances on all the growth that’s going on. Without funding to get more of our money back or looking for alternative resources for our schools, we risk cannibalizing other parts of the city budget, or increasing taxes….When 15 years of tax credits are on the table for a failed project or landlords get away with illegal apartments and cheating the roles we need to have change.”