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Rilling lays out State of the City, plans for the future

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk is a city on the move, a city where things are looking up, a city getting its house in order in preparation for greater things to come.

That was the message Mayor Harry Rilling delivered to some 200 people Thursday in his State of the City speech hosted by the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce at the DoubleTree Norwalk hotel.

Rilling made his case by reciting some economic facts about the city:

  • Unemployment rate is 5.4 percent, better than the state (6.8) and nation (6.9).
  • A $33 million year-end surplus
  • One of 18 Connecticut municipalities with a AAA bond rating.

He pointed to development around the city after years of delay. Waypointe’s Phase I is nearly finished, and work continues along West Avenue. SoNo Ironworks is up and running. Demolition is underway for Wall Street Place, and Head of the Harbor is gearing up. Work has begun on The Pearl, the Washington Village rebuild is set to happen, and other projects are in permitting.

Then there’s the General Growth Partners property – formerly 95/7 – which remains a bombsite on West Avenue as GGP tries to convince the city it’s a great spot for a mall.

Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling.
Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling.

“I don’t think that’s the best and highest use of the property,” Rilling said in response to a question from the business-oriented crowd. But he and other city officials are trying to work with the company, which owns the property, to make sure whatever is built is not something that will be abandoned down the road.

The mayor touched on a lot of topics, including something for the kids and their grandparents. School security is high on the list, with emergency programs tailored for each unique building, he said. The plans include exercises to keep everyone familiar with then, rather than being “put on the shelf. New people come into the system … We want everyone up to speed,” he said.

Seniors can expect some tax relief if, as expected, the Common Council signs off on a plan to increase the income limit for senior tax breaks by $5,000.

“A person works all their life to build their dream, then they get a notice that their taxes are being raised,” Rilling said. “People say they can’t afford to stay here. We need to keep our seniors here.”

The tax relief measure is expected to go to the Council Tuesday night.

In addition to talking about what is, Rilling spoke of what he hoped will be.

One initiative he plans to begin soon is a government version of CompStat, more commonly used by police departments. The program is a data-driven management tool designed to promote more efficient government.

“I will work with the department heads to develop performance metrics, and each month we will get a report telling us where we stand with the plan,” he said later Thursday. It’s meant to help them. It’s not punitive. It tracks progress using data and shows how a department is doing in pursuing its goals.”

The mayor talked of looking into hiring an assistant, or chief of staff, to help keep things running smoothly.

“Norwalk is one of the few cities this size that does not have that position,” he said, adding that many towns smaller than Norwalk also have an assistant to their chief executives.

The mayor also told his audience of two game-changing plans: Changing the charter to give the mayor and Common Council four-year terms, and doing an extensive overhaul of the city’s zoning regulations.

Both things have been talked about in the past, but the time for talk has ended, Rilling said later.

“Two years is too short a term to get anything done,” the mayor said of the current term of office, echoing what he and others said during the 2013 campaign. “You just can’t get your policies in place and get things moving before you have to run again.”

His announcement of his desire to make the change drew applause from the crowd.

Rilling acknowledged that a new mayor is constrained by a budget put together largely by his predecessor and board and commission appointments made by his predecessor. Planning and Zoning Commissioners, who shape the way the city works, serve four-year terms, for instance, and may have an ideology contrary to the mayor’s vision.

Rilling acknowledged there are risks in opening up the charter to make changes, but said, “You need to put together a charter revision commission with good people and trust them” to do the right thing.

“It’s obviously too late to get anything on the ballot for 2014,” he said. “You have to pick a revision committee, get community input, make your changes and put a referendum on the ballot.” Rilling said he would like to get the referendum ready for the 2015 election and, if it passes, have it take effect in 2017.

More immediate is the zoning issue. Rilling told the audience the city needs regulations that encourage, rather than hinder development.

“We need to get rid of inconsistencies and loopholes,” he said. “We need rules that promote smart development.”

Later, Rilling said, “Our zoning regulations are very complex, very difficult to understand and work with. I’m going to reach out to people who know what the regulations are and what they should be, and ask them to review them and make recommendations for changes.”

Rilling said he would begin contacting people for the task next week.

He said the current regulations are overly restrictive when it comes to parking and do not properly address things like density and floor area ratio – a term used lately in connection with the mosque proposal – and are not conducive to development.

“We need regulations that promote smart growth and development, not obstruct it.”

He said there are 14 different regulations in the Transit Oriented District.

“We have to find a way to get back to something reasonable,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot from developers about it. Changes are needed.”

Comments

21 responses to “Rilling lays out State of the City, plans for the future”

  1. anon

    Rilling takes credit for Waypoint, Ironworks and Pearl etc. all in process long before he took office. No new major development has begun under Mayor Rilling.

    For the budget “a new mayor is constrained by a budget put together largely by his predecessor”. This year will be Rilling’s budget, a chance for Rilling to do more with less and not raise taxes on any homeowners.

  2. Piberman

    Not much attention here to property tax burdens and their consequences – stagnant property values and exit of long time homeowners. Mayor Rilling now has a chance to chart a new course here with determined fiscal prudence.

  3. One and Done.

    If we ended the fiscal year with a $33 million surplus, then why did you pass a budget that raises taxes by another $8 million? You are trying to tell me this $33 million appeared out of thin air and no one knew about it 10 months into the year when YOU made next year’s budget? This is incredible.
    .
    The fact you have no shame in bragging about it is even more amazing. Maybe use that ‘surplus’ to make a least one road in this city not resemble a blast zone.

  4. Oldtimer

    For the mayor to point out recent progress on projects that have been in the works for years is not taking credit for what was started during a prior mayor’s administration, it is merely reporting various indications that things are looking up in Norwalk.

  5. LWitherspoon

    Candidate Rilling staunchly and unambiguously opposed a mall at 95/7. Mayor Rilling claims to still oppose a mall there, but is now “trying to work with the company, which owns the property, to make sure whatever is built is not something that will be abandoned down the road.”
    .
    Doesn’t sound like the Mayor is willing to use his considerable influence to oppose a project that he opposed as a candidate. In fact it sounds like he’s trying to have it both ways: claiming to still oppose the Mall, while at the same time working with the developer, who Rilling has praised in other articles on NoN.
    .
    Any reasonable person listening to Rilling during the campaign would have concluded that as Mayor he would do what he could to oppose a Mall at 95/7. As such he has failed to keep his word to the voters. I’m not at all surprised that a politician would fail to keep his word. I’m surprised that NoN would fail to shine a light on it.

    1. Mark Chapman

      LWitherspoon

      When we made the decision to become a non-profit news site, we stopped making political endorsements and taking political stances. We report the facts and let readers draw their own conclusions. In this case, the proposal still needs a big change in the Land Disposition Agreement to qualify for a permit. That is a pretty big chip for discussions while working with a company that owns such a prime property.

  6. John Hamlin

    It would have been wonderful if he had talked about possible (or even necessary and planned) upgrades in city departments. If certain City departments aren’t enhanced before then next election, the Mayor may have a hard time getting re-elected.

  7. Peter Parker

    Rilling is taking credit for all the things former Mayor Moccia put in place long before anyone even knew who Rilling was. Mocia had it correct. Rilling is a loser and has accomplished nothing since in office, and now he wants to change the charter to extend the term of the Mayor. LOL.. This man is a joke and should be laughed out of office.

  8. LWitherspoon

    @Mark Chapman
    .
    Understood, but I didn’t suggest that NoN make any political endorsement or take any stance. I simply believe “reporting the facts” entails pointing out when an elected official’s statements once in office diverge from his statements as a candidate.
    .
    It is a factual statement that Mayor Rilling is not actively opposing the mall, despite unambiguously opposing a mall at 95/7 as a candidate. Rilling’s plan now appears to be to ask for a few changes to the design. HUGE difference, and I am surprised that NoN isn’t shining a light on what appears to be a remarkable change of position by the Mayor.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @LWitherspoon

      The quotes are basically the same. He does not believe it is the best and highest use of the property. The fact he and the city are working with the property owners does not mean they are trying to decide on the colors of the floor tiles. The entire project remains in flux.

      Oct. 27, 2013 NoN

      Rilling said the city needs to know what GGP has in mind before the RDA approves the transfer.
      “A mall generally does not generate a good revenue stream in taxes,” he said. “They don’t pay taxes on their inventory. They pay taxes on their footprint. They bring in, again, part-time, low paying jobs, and in the Financial Times, there was a report recently that said that 15 percent of the nation’s malls will fail within the next five years. So before we move ahead with transfer of any development rights we really need to sit down, let the public know what the plans are going to be, before we move forward. It’s silly to move forward unless you know what the plans are that are going to be implemented.”

      Oct 26 The Hour
      NORWALK – Democratic mayoral candidate Harry Rilling said the city should consider all of the options for the District 95/7 SoNo property before settling on allowing a mall to be built in the city.

  9. Taxpayer Fatigue

    Rilling has done a good job of working to clear the obstacles that have prevented the development projects going, most of which have been on the books since before Moccia was in office, so it’s a bit of a stretch to try and give Moccia the credit for them. Harry has done a good job of reaching across the aisle and working with the Republican-controlled Council to get things moving again, and has brought a civil tone back to our city government. It is great that he is finally going to start addressing the problems with our Planning and Zoning department/commissions – something that most democrats and republicans now agree needs to be fixed. Let’s hope he tackles DPW this year as well. And yes, we don’t need a giant tax increase either. Unfortunately more than half of the tax increases we’ve had are driven by the BOE, not the city departments. And, our stagnant property values are completely due to our school systems which has test scores averaging in the low 70s percentile range, and was recently given an overall score of “C”, compared to “A”s given to all the towns on our border. Ask any Realtor in Norwalk what is hurting our property values and they will tell you it is our low school system rankings compared to the surrounding towns. The bright spot is that we are slightly ahead of Stamford in the latest rankings, the new school superintendent is strong, and the majority of the BOE are working together to improve that. Let’s just hope that they don’t come to the table with a huge increase in budget again.

  10. One and Done.

    @TaxpayerFatigue. Of course it is the mayor of Norwalk who influences global capital markets. That old Moccia didn’t realize it was his job to increase liquidity so some of these projects could have been completed sooner. WHATEVER. And by civility, you mean the nonsense going on at the BOE where he is supposed to be attending meetings? If you think anything positive is going to happen out of DPW guess again, they are operating on a budget that hasn’t changed in 30 years, so unless Harry is going to pour more money into it, expect the same crappy pot hole filled roads.
    .
    Back to one of the bullet points in the speech….
    .
    I can’t wait to see this fully audited 33 million surplus and what contributed to it. I guess we’ll have to wait a few more months for that to happen.

  11. Piberman

    Since Mayor Rilling has kept the same key administrative team as his predecessor its unlikely the City’s management performance will improve unless he brings in major new talent. The BOE is a fine demonstration how major new talent (Dupt.) reinvigorates and improves an organization.
    The comments that the City’s stagnant properties reflect its school performance are not supported by the evidence. NPSS performance has largely remained unchanged over the past 3 or 4 decades. Readers are advised to read the Arbitration Report on the link between Norwalk’s stagnant properties and punitive property taxes. More broadly City budgets have increased several times over the past two decades while family incomes have remained mostly unchanged. The surge in City residents now renting illustrates the consequences of unacceptably high property taxes and stagnant properties.
    Without new administrative talent in City Hall and a mayoral commitment to restraining the budget and property taxes Norwalk will become a less desirable place to live popular only with renters. Mayor Rilling inherited this mess from prior administrations. Whether he’ll take forceful action to reverse course remains unknown at this date. But after a year the omens are not encouraging. But we can hope for meaningful change.

  12. Taxpayer Fatigue

    According to the city code, the mayor can only hire and fire the personnel director and the dpw director. He fired the old personnel director day one. The republican controlled commissions and committees have control over hiring and firing most of the other department heads.
    I agree with Berman that our property taxes are too high, unfortunately that is from years of overspending for mediocre schools and cushy, fat union contracts for everyone, but again, mostly on the school side. I agree with One and Done that part of the reason the city is in such bad physical condition is that DPW and Parks and Rec are underfunded. Talk to any realtor and they will tell you that they can’t sell anything above the $350k price range right now because people who can afford more buy in other towns because of our poor school ratings – Norwalk is a bad investment. If Dr. Rivera can actually improve our schools test scores, it won’t matter what our property taxes are, our real estate values will skyrocket because you can get more house for your money in Norwalk than in any of the surrounding towns by far.

  13. LWitherspoon

    @Mark Chapman
    .
    Thank you for your reply, but the quotes you cited above only tell part of the story. I was present at the debate where candidate Rilling clearly and forcefully stated his position regarding a mall at 95/7. He said:
    .
    “Putting a mall there, in my estimation, is the wrong direction. We don’t need to take that direction.”
    .
    He went on to state that a recent article in the Financial Times said that 15% of American malls will fail within the next five years.
    .
    See 2:30 in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvyhDj400aQ
    .
    Candidate Rilling’s comments were unambiguous. I left that debate certain that a key difference between Moccia and Rilling was that Moccia was open to a mall at 95/7 and Rilling was strongly against.
    .
    Now Mayor Rilling has equivocated on that position. He has stated that if we don’t permit a mall, the site will remain undeveloped for many years. He has also said he was pleased with some aspects of the design. It turns out that Mayor Rilling isn’t as opposed to a mall as Candidate Rilling claimed he was. The candidate who told us he was against big-box stores could very well break ground on the biggest “box” of all at 95/7.

  14. Piberman

    Taxpayer fatigue:

    Norwalk schools have always underperformed the 5 surrounding towns where incomes and housing values typically are twice Norwalk’s. And post-War housing values have typically been well below the surrounding towns. Dr Rivera may narrow the school performance differential but by and large a large differential will continue for the foreseeable future for well known socio-economic reasons.

    What should concern us greatly are several years of stagnant City residential property values now that we’re 5 years into the national expansion. Historically this is a new phenomenon in Norwalk. The Arbitration Panel Report highlighted the causal association between stagnation and the City’s real estate taxes. Since neither mayoral candidate discussed City finances during the recent election Norwalk will increasingly be attractive to renters, not new homeowners as long resident homeowners sell out. So far there there’s no indication Mayor Rilling desires to tackle the City’s budget. Appointing the former NEON Board Chair to the BET clearly suggests the mayor has other interests than crafting a budget affordable to our citizens. His lack of interest replicates former Mayor Moccia. Neither Party wants to tackle our bloated City budget. Norwalk is a pleasant city but expectations of future housing appreciation isn’t one of our attributes.

  15. Taxpayer Fatigue

    Norwalk has always underperformed the 5 surrounding towns because we have had bad leadership and low expectations. If we are going to be content with mediocre schools, then let’s get another mediocre superintendent and slash school spending and then you’ll actually see a reduction in taxes. You have often cited the high costs of the BOE’s union contracts – and yet another one was approved this week by the BOE that gave raises and elevated positions. Can’t wait to see the rest of the contracts come out – I’ll be surprised if they are any different.
    ==
    “5 years into a national expansion”? What planet are you on? Are you talking about the recovery in the stock market because there is very little recovery in the real estate market going on as most of the country is still working through foreclosures. The boom in the rental markets is a national trend, not just Norwalk as you make it out to be, as the mortgage market is still tight and incomes across the country have not improved. Real estate sales are slowly recovering, but still generally flat in the surrounding towns. Sales of real estate in Norwalk over $350k are basically dead. Why? Because prices have come down in the surrounding towns, so why buy in Norwalk when you can buy property in a town with an “A” rated school system.
    ==
    There is no way to craft an affordable budget to homeowners in Norwalk without cutting school spending, which at this point, I am not advocating. I for one, would like to see more money spent on roads, sidewalks, and parks. I do think there is substantial room for scrutiny of the police budget, which the Moccia administration overfunded during his entire tenure, but other than that, there isn’t much there. We could just eliminate P&Z since they are completely ineffective and cause nothing but lawsuits and grief, but sooner or later, that function needs to work in order to move the city forward. We are between a rock and a hard place – the only thing that will move us forward (and our property values) is if Rivera actually can deliver measurable, improved results in our schools and test scores (other than just making us all feel better that things are being managed better). But, we probably won’t see any meaningful results for three to five years at the earliest, all the while taxpayers suck up more increases in our taxes to pay for increased school budgets and yes, the smaller city budget as well.

  16. Scott

    Public works does little of the maintainence we used to do. Just look at the curb lines in scholar zones. I wouldn’t by a house either. This is due to management trying to reinvent the wheel. The system worked well for years and we were able to ‘maintain’ our sections (the majority of DPW job titles are called ‘maintainer’). We need to put the polish back on our city. The other factor is the quality of our schools. How many of you have heard Norwalk’s nickname? It you haven’t it’s Little Bridgeport. Why don’t families want to buy a house in Bridgeport? Why not. There are some beautiful houses in nice nrighborhoods. It’s because of the school system. If they can afford it they send their kids go Notes Dame. If not they fight to get their kids into programs like The Center For Global Studies. In my opinion the largest factor in the decline of our schools is the language barrier. I’m told stories from my kids of students who are recent emmigrants who are placed in classrooms but speak little to no English. The teacher is then tasked with keeping the entire class up to speed. It must be like treading water. How can our students excel. There has to be a better system of integration so that all of these kids can enjoy the American dream. If we can’t stop these runaway trains then Norwalk’s property values will never recover. Lets lose the nickname

  17. EveT

    @LWitherspoon, I believe Nancy on Norwalk is an online newspaper. As such, I expect them to publish news like any other newspaper. Newspapers do not generally go back and cite past events and past statements for the purpose of seeing if a politician is carrying out campaign promises. It is up to readers to make those connections.
    Readers can also write a letter to the editor, or speak on the record to a reporter while attending a newsworthy event like the State of the City address.

  18. LWitherspoon

    @EveT
    .
    All newspapers, online or otherwise, generally provide background which includes a summary of an elected official’s past statements or actions related to the topic at hand. As an example, the article about Bruce Kimmel’s dissatisfaction with an unnamed member of the Republican caucus includes a history of actions by David McCarthy which may be a contributing factor to Mr. Kimmel’s unhappiness.
    .
    NoN itself has run an article comparing Mayor Rilling’s campaign promises to his actions in office.
    .
    In my opinion, pointing out when the actions of an elected official differ from his prior statements is one of the media’s most important functions. Give the voters the facts, and let them decide.

  19. Kevin Di Mauro

    Norwalk, CT, USA is a great place especially if you are one of the 43 children who entered the country illegally and still found a home in Norwalk’s school system. Kudos to Harry the Humanitarian and Manny Rivera.

    I guess I should say kudos to the Norwalk taxpayers. We’re the ones who are paying for them.

    “Little Bridgeport”? The nickname I always heard for our city was NorWACK.

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