More than 100 local seniors and a handful of other residents concerned about escalating local property taxes and the role the latest town revaluation played in tax increases converged at Newtown High School Tuesday, October 15, for an informational forum hosted by the Board of Finance.
First Selectman Pat Llodra, Interim School Superintendent John Reed, Finance Director Robert Tait, Assessor Chris Kelsey, and members of the Legislative Council and Board of Education were also on hand.
While finance board Chairman John Kortze admitted the session might not be “an aspirin for the headaches” taxpayers are suffering over revaluation related tax increases, he said officials were committed to hearing and trying to respond to concerns expressed during a series of informal meetings he has been attending at various senior communities in town.
Resident Rudy Magnan, who is organizing a political action group called the Newtown League of Senior Voters, was first to speak. He said when he moved to Newtown five or six years ago, he and his wife “thought we found paradise. But then taxes started going up.”
Mr Magnan said he had previously met with a host of town officials over mistakes in the valuation of his residence on Watkins Drive, but when he received his latest tax bill he “became anxious, even angered.”
Speaking on behalf of the newly formed league, he told officials Tuesday, “If we don’t get the respect and a reduction in taxes, we are considering retaining legal council to resolve the issue.”
Mr Tait and Mr Kelsey used a projected display to review questions provided to them in advance, and their answers. They also addressed several specific points, including errors found in valuations at the Liberty and Regency over-55 communities.
Mr Kelsey said that all the errors have been identified and corrected, and adjustments in favor of the owners involved will be posted in new second round tax bills that are due in January 2014.
Mr Tait responded to submitted questions, including whether the town could abate the portion of local taxes that qualifying property owners pay toward the local school district budget. He said that state law prohibits such a practice.
In response to requests to increase the income cap for Newtown’s senior tax abatement program, he noted that existing benefits are as good or better than most neighboring communities in Fairfield County.
The finance director also acknowledged that in Connecticut, after a revaluation in any community, taxpayers experience “rate shock.”
Mrs Llodra reminded the audience that Newtown has regularly raised the cap on the amount allocated to the tax collector for senior tax abatement several times in recent years.
“But every time we raise the cap, we are shifting that tax burden to others,” Mrs Llodra said. “And all taxpayers are suffering.”
She said that over the past five fiscal cycles, Newtown’s municipal operating budget has only increased by about one percent before debt service for town and school capital borrowing is added.
Don Leonard, who lives at Liberty, said that he believes the issue of fairness is at stake.
“We all saw decreased property values, but only some saw an increase in [taxation]. Something is wrong in the balance,” Mr Leonard observed.
The Liberty resident also said that he is away part of the year. As a result, he did not receive his revaluation figures until after the deadline for appeals had passed.
Mr Leonard asked why his revaluation notice could not be copied to him electronically, and Mr Kelsey responded that state law mandates assessors send those notices only to the affected address by US mail.
Another Liberty resident, Ken Gillet said that the only alternative seniors may have to combat future tax increases is at the ballot box. He inferred that seniors can send a message by voting accordingly on both proposed future budgets, as well as in November when local officials are up for reelection.
Jim Spinner admitted his Mt Nebo Road home is among the largest residences in town, but said his most recent tax increase jumped from $19,000 to $34,000. This comment brought gasps of shock from the audience.
“I think the system is broken,” Mr Spinner said. “I can’t afford to stay in Newtown.”
Gary Fillion, one of the few younger taxpayers at the forum, said while the revaluation on his modest Underhill Road property increased incrementally — by just $2,000 — his taxes increased about the same amount, from $5,000 to $7,000.
After a brief break, during which many of the audience departed, Mr Kortze noted that many elected officials were on hand to hear the feedback, and that it would behoove them all to talk about other ways the community might control taxation, especially on seniors and other more economically disadvantaged residents.
He said those discussions should be held publicly and with taxpayer input and participation.
After the meeting, Mrs Llodra told The Bee that what she and other officials were hearing at the forum was “very concerning.”
“These issues are legitimate, they are real, and people are anxious,” the first selectman observed. “The results of the reval appear so uneven, and make it appear that a small population is bearing a disproportionate burden.”
She also reiterated concerns about how increasing assistance for fixed-income residents would affect the balance of local taxpayers, and expressed some frustration about the scope of the challenge.
“Newtown can’t become a place where people on fixed incomes can’t live,” Mrs Llodra said. “But the big elephant in the room is the general level of taxation. We have a revenue issue and if we don’t find new revenues, I don’t know how we can provide more help.”
The first selectman said, while it does not help fixed-income families locally, the issue of escalating property taxes and down trending revenue is both a Connecticut and New England issue, and not exclusive to Newtown.