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Dare To Dream Small

December 3, 2006
By TOM CONDON, Courant Staff Writer

There was palpable panic in the voice of the woman from the West End. She loved the neighborhood, but not this much. The guy from the South End had an air of resignation. A condo owner in Asylum Hill said he'd never be able to sell.

The city's property revaluation is underway, the first since 1999, and residents who've already endured tax hikes in recent years were worried about a major fleecing. Their property assessments were up, in some cases 200 percent or more.

Fortunately, things are not as they might appear. The jump in assessed value doesn't mean there'll be a huge tax increase. There would have been, except that the General Assembly passed a law last spring allowing the city to phase in residential increases over the next five years.

The immediate concern should not be with revaluation - that property is worth more is a good thing - but with city spending, which has gone up sharply in recent years. It has to be gotten under control. Mayor Eddie Perez might consider embracing a nascent national movement called "smart decline."

On the revaluation, residential property values have risen substantially faster than commercial property values since 1999, which would normally cause a major shift in tax burden to residential payers. Indeed, without intervention, Hartford residents would be looking at an average tax increase of almost 60 percent, with some owners stung for more than 100 percent.

This might have triggered a mass exodus of taxpayers, which would not have been good. The business community, much to its credit, agreed to shoulder some of the burden that would otherwise have shifted to residents. Business, legislative and city leaders crafted a plan that allows the city to cap the overall residential tax increase at 3.5 percent a year for the next five years.

That doesn't mean the taxes on an individual house are capped at 3.5 percent, it means the taxes from the entire residential sector - all the houses, apartments and condominiums - need only produce a cumulative 3.5 percent increase over the current yield. Taxes on individual properties can go up or even down, depending on where they were in 1999 and how much they've appreciated.

If your property was assessed for peanuts in 1999 but has shot up since, you might be looking at a 10 to 20 percent increase, but not 70 to 80 percent.

There's a small silver lining for residents: The reval should lower property taxes on cars. Rising assessments usually mean a lower mill rate. Cars are assessed every year, so gain the benefit of the lower tax rate without the jump in assessed value. Some homeowners will see real estate tax increases offset by car tax decreases. The late comedian Joe E. Brown might have spoken for Hartford taxpayers when he said, on his way to the racetrack, "I hope I break even, I need the money."

Revaluation is revenue-neutral, as they say. It doesn't bring in more money, it simply reallocates the touch. If the city wants to keep taxes down, it's got to exercise fiscal discipline, something that's gone flaccid in the past three years.

Mayor Eddie Perez was elected in 2001 to a two-year term as the last "weak mayor" under the old council/manager system. He was then elected in 2003 to a four-year term as the first strong mayor. In 2001, Perez and the council cut the budget. Since 2002-03, the budget has gone from $422.4 million to $496.9 million, and tax rate has risen 7 to 8 percent a year.

Much of this is unavoidable - health care doesn't get cheaper, the city needs more police, etc. But I still get the impression that Perez thinks he's the mayor of a larger city, at least a city that wants to be larger, pushing such amenities as WiFi and a 311 consumer call center. You're telling me that the mayor needs a two-person press office? For the Niagara of news coming out of city hall?

If spending stays on its present incline, Perez will be vulnerable in next year's mayoral election. He might want to consider that smaller could be better. Though "smart growth" is the buzz of the moment, some U.S. and European cities have begun to think that "smart decline" will serve them better.

Youngstown, Ohio, for example, once had 170,000 people but now has 82,000 after its steel mills closed. According to the November issue of ever-helpful Governing magazine, Youngstown views this as an opportunity to reorganize and replan, to make a smaller and more livable community. Officials are returning some abandoned or marginal areas to parks, greenways and open space.

This idea is being studied in Germany, Japan and elsewhere. Exhibits and seminars are planned over the next few months in New York and California. Kent State University, which has a planning office in downtown Cleveland, has opened a Shrinking Cities Institute.

Hartford has taken some steps in this direction, demolishing hundreds of abandoned buildings in the 1990s, downsizing public housing projects and turning some former six-unit apartment buildings into two-unit homes. On the other hand, the city seems to allow housing wherever someone can build it, even, in one case, a former park, Brackett Park in the North End.

Hartford doesn't have the same level of abandonment as Youngstown, but Hartford's population was once 177,000 (in 1950) and never will be again. Is it possible to plan a more compact and connected city that could be run less expensively? Could some marginal areas be returned to nature? If I were Eddie, I'd look into it.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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