High taxes, the crime rate, the small number of black Norwalk firefighters and the quality of Norwalk schools -- which is good, according to a new resident -- were among the topics Monday night as Mayor Harry Rilling met the public at his first Mayor's Night Out.
Rilling, in his third week on the job, was making good on a campaign promise, inviting Norwalk citizens to the first of what he says will be monthly meetings with himself and other city officials to answer questions and hear concerns.
More than 30 people came to the City Hall community room, where three municipal department heads took most of the heat and 12 of 15 Common Council members sat next to them, two of them fielding a tough question from one angry man.
Rilling allowed that man, Port Draper, to speak for 10 minutes.
"If there is a single item that affects us, there is nothing comparable to the high level of our taxes," began Draper, who said he was representing Wilson Point and Harbor Shores. "It used to be families could come in, buy a house, fix it up and make it attractive. That's not true anymore.
"They are leaving, house after house in our neighborhood."
The tax rate in the communities surrounding Norwalk is about half of what it is in the city, and it's cheaper to live in Stamford, Draper said. Real estate values have plummeted, and grown children are leaving, he said.
Norwalk police cost city residents more per capita than residents of Los Angeles, he argued, and pensions for city employees are bleeding Norwalk dry.
He said officials should sit down with the budget director and cut the city's payroll to trim taxes.
"Let's save money here," he said. "We have a wonderful opportunity to make a wonderful city here. But all we are doing is running it for the benefit of the employees. If you own a house in this city you're a fool, but unfortunately, if you bought one you can't sell it."
Council Minority Leader John Igneri, D-District E, took on the task of answering Draper, who he said he has known for years.
"I retired, and I decided not to go to Florida or South Carolina but to invest time in the city because I think it can become the dynamo you're talking about," he said. "We need to do things a little differently. We need to get people to think of doing things a little differently and we're starting to do that. It took 40 years to get into this condition. It's going to take us 40 years to get out of it, a little at a time. We will chip away. We're doing it, we're changing."
Council President Doug Hempstead, R-At Large, told Draper that the pension programs he was complaining about are a vestige of the past, and that new employees' retirement is covered by self-directed plans.
He said he agrees with Igneri -- it will take time to accomplish all the changes. Read Full Article
"I think the city has done a good job over the last couple of years trying to take the situation that we are in long term and trying to make revisions that won't continually strap the long-term pensions that have no roof on them versus the self-directed plans. It's a slow rehab," he said.
Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord found himself on the hot seat more than once.
Asked by Martha Dumas about the poor state of sidewalks in South Norwalk, Alvord said, "The sidewalk thing was, quite honestly, a priority issue. When we started looking at what the infrastructure of the city required, the roads, the bridges, the traffic signals, the sidewalks, we were talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, quite honestly." The Board of Estimate agreed there was no way that could be done, he said.
"We ended up prioritizing the work -- the roads first, the bridges," he said. "We tried to use as much of everybody else's money as we could. We got a lot of federal grants to do that. We are now approaching the point where I think we can start planning on how we can address the sidewalks. We still have a lot of paving work to do; we have a five-year plan, a 10-year plan."
Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik was asked about the crime rate.
"The big picture, violent crime is way down," Kulhawik said. "It was down about 17 percent last year and this year, the first six months, it's down about another 12 percent. Hopefully we'll see the last six months the same, and I think we're going that way. Property crime, especially car burglaries, is up. It's been up for about the last six months ... Not just here, that's been a problem all around us, every town. If you look in the papers, or on social media, you see police departments putting out news releases, telling people to lock your car."
Andre Williams, a Norwalk firefighter and vice president of the NAACP, asked Fire Chief Denis McCarthy to explain why his contract should be renewed, given that there were 15 African-American firefighters when McCarthy became chief and only six now.
Rilling, however, would not allow that question.
"I don't want to put anybody on the spot as to why they should keep their job," he said.
But he did allow McCarthy to explain the situation.
Minority hiring has been a "significant challenge," the chief said.
One of the department's recent hires is a Burlington, Vt., man who has taken tests all over, and came in first on the Norwalk test, he said.
People from Guam and California took the firefighter test. Even though the department held classes for local people, it's difficult to compete with professional test takers, many of whom are college graduates, he said.
"It is very difficult to compete if you are an inner-city kid without any exposure to the fire service, to take one test in the hopes that you have finished high enough to compete against candidates that are coming from across the country," he said.
About 20 percent of test takers were African-American, but none scored in the top 1 percent, he said.
The evening ended with a fresh perspective on the city from a new resident.
"I'm like, `Oh my god,' listening to all these things," said Lumi Franco, who said she has lived in Norwalk for two months after 18 years in Waterbury.
"Having my two young kids move into junior high and high school here, it was such a difference," said Franco, who grew up in New York City. "I mean, compared to the Board of Education where I work at, I am so amazed of your school district here ... I can't complain so far about Norwalk. I think it's a really good town."
Rilling said he thought the night went well.
"Citizens came up to me after the meeting and said they were absolutely thrilled we did this," he said. "They said they never had the opportunity to attending a meeting like that, and they hope we continue to do it."
The mayor plans to hold the next forum in West Norwalk on the first or third Monday of January.
One man who attended the event said he has learned recently that getting involved in government issues is rewarding.
"If you participate more, you can get more out of it. You can help shape a city." Kevin Dailey said.
Rilling's first meeting was good, with a nice turnout, he said.
"I liked that these guys were responding to the questions very well, tough questions," he said.