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A Talk About Taxes

A crowd of mostly senior citizens filled seats normally occupied by teenagers in the lecture hall at Newtown High School last week. Turning the tables, they came to do the lecturing to an attentive Board of Finance sitting in front of the class. The subject was property taxes and the lesson was: They’re too high! The face-off seemed inevitable after tax bills went out early last summer, reflecting dramatically higher taxes on dramatically higher assessments for three types of properties, including over-55 condominiums.

Assessment valuations, which are pegged to market valuations, for these properties, along with waterfront parcels and high-priced-high-end homes, held their value, or in some cases increased in value, despite an average decline of 23 percent for properties in the town’s most recent revaluation. This housing market dynamic skewed assessments and tax bills disproportionately higher for these unlucky taxpayers. For many seniors living on fixed incomes, if wasn’t just an unfortunate twist of fate, it was a financial disaster. And they weren’t going to let it pass. “If we don’t get respect and a reduction in taxes, we are considering retaining legal counsel to resolve the issue,” said Rudy Magnan of the newly formed Newtown League of Senior Voters.

The Board of Finance had no trouble showing respect for the seniors, but they were hard pressed to show them a way out of their predicament. Some suggestions, like abating taxes associated with school costs for seniors, who don’t have children in the schools, are prohibited by state law. They also awkwardly place education somewhere beyond the boundaries of the common good. And proposals to raise the $65,000 household income cap for eligibility for senior tax relief only shift the tax burden to others already struggling under property tax increases. (Currently, one in four of the 740 senior households get either a senior tax credit or assessment exemption, averaging 39 percent of their tax bill.) The “big elephant in the room,” as First Selectman Pat Llodra describes it, is the town’s general level of taxation. “If we don’t find new revenues,” she said, “I don’t know how we can provide more help.”

It is little consolation that these problems are pervasive throughout Connecticut and New England. Property taxes are straining the fabric of communities in ways that divide the interests of retirees and young families, the working poor and the affluent, natives and newcomers. Discussing the issue in and of itself isn’t going to pay any bills, but it may lead to some ideas that will.

Following the confrontation in the lecture hall last week, finance board Chairman John Kortze challenged the town’s budgetmakers and lawmakers to see the meeting not as a one-off venting session for some aggrieved taxpayers, but as the start of a community conversation about some difficult topics, like spending priorities, economic development, and the need for property tax relief from the state.

Newtown needs to take up that challenge and put aside the lectures to sit down and talk, filling the seats not just with teenagers and senior citizens, but with labor and management, PTA members and tax protestors, trailer park tenants and estate owners, and especially those of us with no particular special interest — just a conviction and commitment to keep Newtown moving forward, together, no matter what the challenge.

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