The year stepped off to a brisk start — not just in air temperature, but also with bright signs of an awakening economy and a more sustainable way of living and doing business. The future shows new growth sited efficiently in urban centers where the infrastructure already exists and can foster the kind of connected, walkable downtowns that citizens tell us repeatedly that they want.
Just a few examples: New Haven is reclaiming the wasteland of the old Route 34 Connector and bringing it back to life as part of a bustling downtown; not to be out-done, downtown Hartford will see its own building boom of new apartments.
On the same list of trends, though, is something startling, and thereby hangs a cautionary tale. Huge suburban office parks, the latest thing in the 80’s, are being abandoned. Aetna bulldozed its enormous Middletown complex, and Pfizer is doing the same to its research center in Groton. Others will follow as the locus of economic growth moves toward urban centers, leaving their towns holding an outmoded property-tax bag.
This should encourage a new look at fixing possibly the biggest single barrier to Connecticut’s grabbing ahold of its bright future … our badly broken, antiquated, unfair tax system. Connecticut relies on property tax for 42 percent of all revenues, more than any other state in the union. This over-reliance unfairly burdens taxpayers without regard to their ability to pay. Just as maddening, it holds us back economically and educationally.
Property taxing capacity varies wildly between towns. The grand list per capita of Bridgeport is $67,223. But the per capita grand list of Greenwich is $712,705, some 10 times more. No surprise that the equalized mill rate in Greenwich is 6.69, and the same number in Bridgeport is 27.97. Considering that $0.60 of every $1 raised in property tax goes to fund local education, can we be surprised that educational quality and its promise for Connecticut’s future vary widely from town to town?
Should we be surprised that property tax is the biggest tax burden on Connecticut business — far higher than the corporate income tax? Can we blame towns for competing for new, sometimes badly sited tax-ratable development? Isn’t this what brought us empty office and research parks?
Tax reform is dicey stuff. Change comes hard in this land of steady habits. But now is the time, while the economy begins to move forward, to urge policymakers to tackle the challenge of rebalancing the state’s tax system. The M.O.R.E. Commission, created by Connecticut House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, is working away at this, but nothing will change without a groundswell of concern from the grassroots and town level. Other states have moved ahead of us in this arena, objectively calculating each town’s legitimate needs, their capacity to raise revenue, and working to rebalance the tax system to close gaps. Let’s get working to assemble the data, expertise and political will to make Connecticut famous for its smart, fair, forward-looking tax system.
Susan Merrow of East Haddam is chairwoman of 1000 Friends of Connecticut, a nonprofit organization that works on issues of “smart growth.”