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OPINION: Wallingford mayoral campaign has begun

OPINION: Wallingford mayoral campaign has begun

The 2019 municipal election campaign has begun, at least for Jared Liu, who aspires to be the Democratic mayoral candidate. The Record-Journal has published three of his columns about how to improve governance in Wallingford. I admire that he has stepped forward with his commentary. It gives readers a glimpse of his thinking and, hey, it gives me tons of fodder for my From Wallingford columns.

Not surprisingly, I will provide a counterpoint to some of his positions. Today’s column will discuss three of the many points made in his April submission. There are many, many more I’d like to challenge, but space makes that impossible. The italicized words are from his column. My observations follow.

“Despite Town Hall’s spin, people know that our mill rate is about average.” Here are the facts: For FY 2018-2019, Wallingford’s mill rate is $28.64. Here are those of the towns surrounding us: Southington $30.48, North Haven $31.18, Cheshire $32.62, Durham $36.50, Meriden $41.04. Leaving out Meriden because it’s a city, Wallingford’s mill rate is anywhere from 6% to 27% less than every surrounding community.  If you take all 169 towns’ mill rates, Wallingford is 12.0% lower than the average mill rate of $32.07 and 7.9% lower than the median statewide mill rate of $30.90. However you cut it, Wallingford’s mill rate is lower, not average.

“…30% of commercial property is vacant, which is among the highest in Connecticut…”  His percentage is correct, but he should have said “Class A office space,” not all commercial property. There is an interesting market-based explanation for this. First, there’s a glut of office space statewide, and Wallingford is no exception. Thirty-five years ago, when companies were leaving the cities for the ‘burbs, Wallingford experienced a substantial building boom. Now the trend is to locate back in urban areas (where millennials — the source of a majority of new employees — wish to live). Furthermore, modern office layouts tend to utilize an open space concept rather than individual offices. It takes lots of money to refit our 35-year-old office buildings to attract tenants. Recognizing this trend, the Town is, first of all, offering building owners a tax incentive to invest in modernizing their properties, a tax incentive based on the increased assessment value for having done so. 

Secondly, they are, when possible, encouraging adaptive reuse of office buildings. The most recent example of that is the former Webster Bank check processing facility on Northrop Road. It is soon to be occupied by Radiall, a company moving from New Haven that will assemble (not manufacture) their products there. Our EDC and their Economic Development Specialist made that happen.

“…our businesses are relocating to other towns in the state…” Really? Of course, I am sure that there are some that have left, but the ones I know of left the state; we could have reduced their tax rate to zero and that wouldn’t have made a difference. But let’s also note that in 2016 and 2017, 50+ businesses were started in or moved into Wallingford. In 2018 alone, 47 new businesses moved or opened here.  

“Consolidate non-core school functions into the town’s general budget to complete repairs to school buildings faster and cheaper. … Second, it shifts the expense from Education to General Operating, which would generate up to $700,000 in tax revenue by closing the loophole the town crafted for Ashlar Village.”

Here’s the real math: BOE budget items — school repair, maintenance, custodial services and other purchased property services — total $2,871,026. Shifting that figure from Education to General would increase General Government expenses from 38.85% to 40.54% of the total budget. Ashlar’s assessment is $44,243,770. 38.85% of the 29.19 mill rate is 11.34 mills, which yields a PILOT of $501,724.35. 40.54% of the 29.19 mill rate is 11.83 mills, which would yield a PILOT of $523,403.80. The increase, therefore, is $21,679.45, not the grossly exaggerated $700,000 quoted in the column. 

And besides, playing cute by shifting expenses to General Government so that the town could stick Ashlar Village with more taxes betrays the spirit of the agreement made with them. A most disingenuous and grasping move unworthy of our local government.

Let me conclude with this: politics on the national level is a disgrace, with most everyone in Washington printing, posting and pontificating without any regard for the facts. Throw the stuff on the wall and see what sticks. Ridiculous.

Good governance and good journalism start with a solid foundation of facts. I am respectfully asking our candidates for office in Wallingford to build that foundation. This column does, and you know how I did it? I went to Town Hall and asked for the numbers. I asked for explanations. I listened to the people carrying out the important functions about which Jared Liu commented. 

There’s much more coming up in the next five months. The voters deserve no less than the whole story, not wildly inaccurate numbers and unsubstantiated accusations. Let’s provide it to them.

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.