When Gov. John Rowland announces his plans for the state budget for fiscal year 2002-2003 today, officials from cities and towns throughout Connecticut will be watching carefully to see how much funding their communities will receive.
With the state facing a large budget deficit, funding is at a premium. And at the same time, a report from the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, or CCM, has indicated that over 75 percent of Connecticut cities and towns were forced to raise property tax rates last year in order to provide needed local services.
In fact, New Haven was one of only 16 Connecticut towns that maintained its property tax rate for this fiscal year — good news for the city, but an ominous sign for the rest of the state. Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has said that New Haven has no plans to raise property taxes this year but has also sketched out cutbacks in certain areas to save on expenditures.
“In the past several years property tax rates in New Haven have been pretty steady,” New Haven Tax Collector C.J. Cuticello said. “However, throughout the past three fiscal years we have made great strides in our property tax collection efforts. In the 1994-1995 fiscal year we achieved a collection percentage slightly above 86 percent. In this last fiscal year we achieved a rate of about 96 percent.”
Cuticello attributed New Haven’s increased collection rates to local educational campaigns and counseling programs which have successfully raised awareness in the community.
On the whole, the state of Connecticut experienced a 3.3 percent average increase in property taxes, and 131 of its 161 municipalities were forced to raise property tax rates in order to meet the public service needs of their residents and businesses, according to the CCM report.
Statewide, property taxes are expected to raise an estimated $5.5 billion in revenue in fiscal year 2001-2002, which amounts to $647 million more than the state government projects it will collect from personal income taxes. Taken as a whole, local property taxes remains the single largest tax levied in Connecticut.
“Most people will tell you that the property tax in Connecticut is an unfair and inequitable tax,” said Kevin Maloney, a spokesman for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.
“Our report shows an increasing burden on property owners to fund locally needed services, especially in the central cities and near suburbs. Connecticut still overdepends on property taxes to raise money, and while the state does provide significant local aid, it is still not enough to decrease property taxes at the local level.”
Dean Pagani, Rowland’s spokesman, said the state faces spending strict limitations.
“Over the last seven years we have increased state funding by hundreds of millions of dollars through both direct aid and school construction and transportation improvements,” Pagani said. “Obviously this year there may not be as much of an increase due to our current state budget deficit, which is about $350 million dollars. Unlike the federal government, which can spend more than it can take in, we are required by the state Constitution to balance our budget.”
With money in short supply, DeStefano and other local officials are worried that the state will look to cut aid to cities like New Haven. And Maloney said the city would be in deep trouble if it were forced to raise taxes to compensate.
“New Haven has done an extraordinary job in being able to hold the line on property taxes,” Maloney said. “The city simply cannot afford to see this tax raised because it would mean that more people would be unable to pay their taxes and tax delinquencies would rise.”