Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Chairman's View: Council Faces Cost of Debt, Capital Projects and Lower Property Values (Oct 4, 2018)

Chairman’s View: Council faces cost of debt, capital projects and lower property values

A guest column from New Canaan Town Council Chairman John Engel.
New Canaan has the highest per-capita debt in Connecticut at $5,800, double that of Darien because we are a larger town with many more miles of roads and dozens more buildings. Therefore the Board of Finance has presented to the Town Council their recommendation that we reduce our debt service as a percentage of expenses over the next five years from 12% to 10%.
Capital Plan
The Town Council, Board of Education and Board of Finance agreed last year to work on common budget guidance in the fall. Those meetings are still needed. There is a disconnect between current Board of Finance guidance to reduce Town debt service to 10% levels and the new public-private initiatives we read about each week. Your town government needs to have an honest conversation about priorities and scrub the five-year capital plan.
State and local
High net worth taxpayers are continuing to leave Connecticut. The election will have an impact on our budget thinking. We need to vote for a change in our taxes that will have an impact on our budget planning. The latest poll shows Lamont leads Stefanowski by 6 points with a margin of error of 4 points. 40% of Connecticut voters are independent. Stefanowski has gained 6% with unaffiliated this month, but he trails among women by 22%. This race is too close to call.
Congressional elections, transportation  
New Canaan tax base is largely dependent on Wall Street, and it benefited from recent deregulation of the financial sector, federal stimulation and the bull market. But, the latest polls predict a Republican Senate and a Democratic House in Washington. We should anticipate gridlock from a balanced Congress at a time when what New Canaan needs is federal attention on our infrastructure. New Canaan needs multiple good commuting options, particularly faster and more trains. Town leaders are working on the affordable expansion of Talmadge Hill to make more parking available for commuters. This should shorten the waiting lists. I am surprised at how few people are taking advantage of newly available “Boxcar” parking in the St. Aloysius lot. Parking habits are equally slow to change.
2019 Revaluation
The property tax change is a concern for budget planning. In January we will learn that many tax bills will rise between 10% and 20%. Why? The Grand List is predicted to shrink 8% reflecting a reset at the top end of our market and subsequent compression as top tier prices fell and put price pressure throughout the system on lower-priced homes. Those homes will make up the deficit. 
Therefore, the Board of Finance and Town Council must re-evaluate our Tax Relief for Seniors program and its means-testing in light of the coming property tax volatility. We want to retain our seniors as we explore new senior housing options. It’s a small line item but deserves a fresh look.
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