In Norwalk, Conn., Planning Commissioners Wonder Why So Little Work is Done Online

The city is considering upgrading an existing contract to offer more online.

by Robert Koch, The Hour / January 31, 2018

(TNS) —  NORWALK — Planning commissioners this month took city officials to task over the level of online services offered to residents.

While some services are made available online, many others are not, according to commissioner Nora King.

“When you actually go and want to get your tax liens, or you want to get deeds, most towns you can go and you can log on and you can get all that information,” said King, a real estate appraiser and former city councilwoman.

King’s comment came as the Planning Commission reviewed 2018-19 capital spending requests for various city departments, including the Department of Information Technology. She asked why the department hasn’t requested money to upgrade the Town Clerk Office’s contract with NewVision Systems of New Canaan.

“They do have the capability to provide that,” Information Technology Director Karen Del Vecchio said of the services mentioned by King. The town clerk “wants to move forward with it, we want to move forward with it, and the vendor wants to move forward with it, but there’s an additional cost associated with that and that’s in (the town clerk’s) budget.”

Del Vecchio said her department is in “a holding pattern” until Town Clerk Richard McQuaid works out how to find money for the service upgrade.

Ongoing Project

In 2007, under then-Town Clerk Andy Garfunkel, the Town Clerk’s Office upgraded online services offered to residents. The Common Council approved an amendment to the city’s existing contract with NewVision that enabled the city to host a web page for public access to land record indexes. The amendment added $575-a-month to the city's existing $3,261-a-month contract with NewVision.

With the upgrade, residents, attorneys, title searchers and others have been able to view indexes to deeds, liens, mortgages and other land records but not the actual documents. Obtaining those still requires a trip to the Town Clerk’s Office.

McQuaid was not at the Planning Commission meeting but said the following day that he’s looking to upgrade the system further and had just discussed the matter with NewVision.

“Part of the package is online dog licensing, public search and copies as a subscription-base from home for residents, for public search land records,” McQuaid said. “It has a fraud alert for people to be notified if their records are being looked at or, or things are being done with it. And it also has a component for streamlining tax liens and releases.”

McQuaid said his office welcomes foot traffic and interacting with the public, but added that the upgraded services will make it easier for people to access land records quickly and skip a trip to city hall if the weather isn’t favorable.

He said the upgrade, if done properly, will come at “minimal cost” to the city. The council would have the final say, he said.

“People have to understand there’s a little bit of time getting it put in place,” McQuaid said. “It will be a great addition to our system and to our staff and working here, but they have to understand that we’re hoping by summer, if everything falls into place properly. It’s got to go through some council committees.”

Room for Improvement

At the capital budget review, King wasn’t alone in finding room for improvements at City Hall. Commissioner Tammy Langalis, a local real estate agent, said she frequently must go to the Building Department at City Hall and fill out a paper forms to request information that’s unavailable online.

“I have to go between a certain time. I submitted it and then I have physically come back, pay my dollar or whatever it is,” Langalis said. “I’m not opposed to the dollar — but I would think in the 21st century, they should be able to scan that back to me. I, as a consumer, as a taxpayer, ought to be able to get the form online, send it into them online.”

Del Vecchio said building permit forms should be available online and she would inquire. She said her department is working with the Department of Public Works to duplicate thousands of maps dating back to 1896 and “go live” with the information.

“They’re contracting with a firm to take these maps and scan them all and they all have to be indexed as well,” Del Vecchio said. “So depending on the type of the map that it is, if it’s a sewer map, if it’s a bridge, whatever, what key fields and pieces of information off that map are going to be indexed and searchable going forward.”

One commissioner asked if the information would be searchable for the department or the public.

“Searchable as wide as they want to make it,” Del Vecchio said.

Time and Money

Scanning and indexing documents is a laborious process, according to Frank Sarno, manager of citywide applications in the Norwalk Department of Information Technology.

“There’s a huge area of documents that have to be scanned in somewhere so that they can be retrieved and that’s the kind of effort that’s going to be required, time and money,” Sarno said. “Not that it shouldn’t be done … (but) current information is one thing. Historical information is quite a project.”

Del Vecchio rejects that Norwalk lags behind other communities in making information available online. She cited property tax bill information, city meeting minutes and agendas, driveway permits from the Department of Public Works, and property field cards and appeals from the Tax Assessor’s Office.

“You fill out your form. You schedule your appointment. It’s all done online,” Del Vecchio said. “Nobody else is doing that.”

©2018 The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.