As part of his campaign for mayor, Democratic candidate Jason Zandri is pointing to an 8-year history of tax increases in Wallingford, and he implies they add up to a poor track record. Zandri is trying to stun voters with his information and unleash the angry taxpayer in all of us. Steve Knight is pushing back. In his column last week (“Taxes: Beyond sound bites”), Knight wrote that Zandri’s analysis was simplistic and a disservice to Wallingford voters. He wanted a deeper discussion. I do, too.
Zandri is right in that if property taxes in Wallingford are so high, or rose so fast, that voters are being stiffed, they should toss out of office those who are responsible. Gone would be the popular incumbent mayor, William W. Dickinson Jr., and his loyal Republicans on the town council. If, however, voters are getting a fair deal on taxes, it might be tough for any challenger to win in November.
Many folks have already made up their minds about whether taxes in Wallingford are fair, and for them, the campaign is just noise. Some complain, “We pay more and more in taxes, but we don’t get any more in services.” They are grumpy and are open to a change in governing philosophy. Others say, “Tax increases are unavoidable, Wallingford’s tax rate is reasonable , and we have a good bond rating.” They are not upset. They’ll probably stick with the mayor.
Neither position reflects careful analysis, however. Rather, they are the slogans Knight rightfully laments. A statistic, a sound bite, or a slogan cannot adequately address the issues of whether municipal priorities are sound, taxes are as low as possible, or leadership is effective. Instead, each taxpayer should consider his/her experience in town and make a personal decision as to whether they think they are getting good value for the taxes they pay. Each taxpayer’s understanding of life in Wallingford should provide the context that makes the statistical approach, and sound bites, useful or meaningless.
Comparisons with other towns, however, can be informative and data has its place. Let’s start, therefore, with Wallingford’s tax rate, which is 26.22 mills. How does this compare?
The state’s Office of Policy and Management (OPM) has a sophisticated method of comparing mill rates among the various towns. It factors in information about revaluation, and market values obtained from property sales. It is a non-partisan and authoritative analysis.
The measure is called the “equalized mill rate. “ It is the preferred indicator of the property tax burden because it compares tax payments in relation to the market value of an asset. OPM’s most recent computations of equalized mill rates apply to the fiscal year ending July 30, 2011.
According to OPM, Wallingford’s equalized mill rate was approximately 6 percent below Southington’s; 12 percent below North Haven’s; 13 percent below Cheshire’s; and 27 percent below Meriden’s.
According to OPM’s data, therefore, the tax rate in Wallingford has not been increasing so much that Wallingford’s equalized mill rate has caught up with and exceeded the equalized mill rates in any of those other towns. (I plan on commenting more on this issue in another column I am working on.)
Why is the equalized mill rate lower in Wallingford? Who gets the credit? It could be the result of management’s skill and good decisions, but that’s not necessarily so. Maybe the other towns offer more services. Maybe taxes are lower in Wallingford because we have some favorable conditions for which no politician can take credit. Other factors may be at work, too. Maybe taxes should be even lower than they are, if waste was identified and eliminated and greater efficiencies were implemented. These are good topics to explore.
Steve Knight is right, however. Slogans and sound bites and simplistic approaches from political partisans on either side of the aisle that purport to describe complicated issues do not serve us well. Beware of them.
Mike Brodinsky is a former town councilor, chairman of the School Roof Building Committee and host of public access show “Citizen Mike.”