Tax hike worries residents

The tug of war between keeping down property taxes while maintaining city services was played out last night at a public hearing on the 2006-07 city budget, which proposes a record high increase in New Haven’s property tax rate.

A handful of New Haven residents who testified against Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s proposed 9 percent tax hike said such a growth in the cost of living could drive residents, particularly seniors, out of the city. But city officials and aldermen have said the tax hike is necessary both to pay for an expansion of police and fire services and to compensate for declining economic assistance from the state.

Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek ’05 said the Finance Committee was planning to look carefully at all the expenditures in the budget before approving a tax increase.

“It was very moving to hear from people around the city and get a real sense of the way they struggle,” Shalek said. “It’s really important that as a board we look at the budget carefully to see if we can reduce the [increase].”

Gary Doyens, a resident of New Haven’s Westville neighborhood, said the city needs to evaluate its expenses more carefully before trying to pass a tax increase. He said the city should reconsider what kinds of services are absolutely necessary for governance and then begin cutting unnecessary ones, such as the effort to market the downtown shopping area. Doyens said that over the past three years, his tax bill has increased $1,000 and is now at $5,000 annually.

“They’ve got to ask tough and probative questions about what we’re spending our money on,” he said. “People are at the breaking point, my family is at the breaking point, and all [this increase] is doing now is lowering our standard of living.”

Phyllis Haynes, another New Haven resident, said her family would likely struggle in paying higher taxes on their home, especially after her husband, currently an employee at U.S. Repeating Arms Company, loses his job on Friday, when the factory that once produced Winchester rifles is slated to close.

“Everything is going up but your income, and I don’t think it’s right for the mayor to place that burden on our families,” she said. “There are families that are going to be in jeopardy of losing their homes because of taxes.”

But Rob Smuts ’01, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, said the effect of the tax increase, although the largest in DeStefano’s tenure in New Haven, is being exaggerated and will not be felt that strongly by New Haven families. According to data released by the mayor’s office, taxes would increase by $20 a month, to $226, on a one-family home in the Newhallville neighborhood.

But although the city is trying to keep costs down, Anna Schildroth, an employee at New Haven’s animal shelter, requested that the Board of Aldermen’s Finance Committee create a new paid position at the New Haven animal shelter, which she said is currently understaffed with only two full-time paid positions. Schildroth said the shelter staff is overworked and cannot currently accomplish all of their responsibilities as the largest animal shelter in the state. While national animal-control guidelines recommend a center of its size employ seven field staff, Schildroth said the center currently has only two employees, who also work inside the shelter’s kennel. She asked the board’s Finance Committee to consider spending approximately $30,000 to add another paid position.

Smuts said the city has in the recent past drastically cut employees from all areas of city government aside from the police and fire departments and the Board of Education.

Shalek said the board was going to consider carefully the requests of the animal shelter and find a way to strike a balance between keeping costs down and fulfilling the needs of all city departments.

The next public budget hearing will be held on April 18.

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