One of the more annoying yet inevitable aspects of political campaigns is how candidates take a complex subject and reduce discussion of it to an often misleading sound bite. I suppose that campaigning by slogan might have a place in a national election as the dominance of thirty second television commercials trumps the opportunity for a sophisticated airing of a given issue. In a local election campaign, however, there is no reason a full discussion of any issue cannot be presented.
One of those issues will be taxes, specifically the property tax, the principal means by which local government in Connecticut finances the services it provides. One overly simplistic statement being made is that property taxes on residential houses have increased more in Wallingford than surrounding communities and that, as a result, we are overtaxed.
Now there is no doubt that there are isolated cases where that might be true, and there are probably just as many cases that could be used to refute this assertion. That is not the point of this column. The point I would like to make is that a given tax bill is the result of many intertwined factors, and thus a town-by-town direct comparison is not necessarily valid unless all of them are taken into account. Here are just two of them: property value and mix of residential and commercial/industrial property.
Property value: it stands to reason that if your property value increases, so then will your tax bill. The Town of Wallingford has been faithful in carrying out revaluations on time, and the timing of those revaluations significantly affects any comparison with other communities. Additionally, in conversations that I have had with local real estate agents, they tell me that the home values that skyrocketed earlier in the previous decade everywhere have held up very well here in Wallingford through this five-year period of economic contraction, while they have significantly decreased elsewhere. We should be glad of that, but the downside is that this will be reflected in our taxes.
Mix of taxable property: Wallingford is blessed with a significant amount of both industrial and commercial property. Most of these enterprises pay enormous property taxes while requiring few services. This is especially true when you consider that 70 percent of the town budget is spent on educating our children, a service that these entities obviously do not require.
But this is a little bit of a two-edged sword when the subject of tax increases is explored. When a community goes through a revaluation process, residential property value is determined on the approximate resale value. Industrial and commercial properties are assessed at a value that includes a significant amount of depreciation, a factor not part of a residential valuation. Thus over time, as residential values increase relative to commercial and industrial properties, homeowners shoulder a larger and larger percentage of the total tax burden in the community.
The above are but two of the considerations. Other influences are bonded indebtedness, population, demographics, the number of school buildings and students, physical area of the community.
In other words, a careful and objective analysis of the issue of property taxes defies a simplistic, one-size-fits-all approach. It is a disservice to Wallingford voters to offer them otherwise.
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford Town Councilor.