When I moved to Hartford in the 1970s there were more than two dozen flower shops in the city. Now there are just a handful, and the number is about to drop by one.
Gordon Bonetti Florist Inc. plans to close its Franklin Avenue location and do business only at its Rocky Hill store. The reason? "Property taxes," said longtime owner John Tornatore. He said his real estate and personal property taxes have more than doubled in the past five years and now approach $25,000 a year. "I can't pay it," he said.
This is the kind of legacy business Hartford should never lose. Its roots — literally — go back to at least the 1890s, when it had its own flower farm on Annawan Street. It once had three locations in the city. I've been a customer, it's a fine shop.
With the florist shop on the first floor of a three-story building and apartments on the upper two floors, Tonatore's is the kind of mixed-use building that was outlawed by many zoning codes but rediscovered by the New Urbanist movement among others as a good thing. It's part of a neighborhood, where employees can walk to work, neighborhood kids can get part-time jobs, neighbors can walk in to buy flowers.
Tornatore's situation reflects one of the most serious problems facing Hartford, the stress on small businesses. I've been told that 100 businesses have closed in the South End in the past five years. I haven't been able to confirm the number, but it may be pretty close. There is also considerable empty retail (and office) space downtown.
A major part of the problem was a bad fix to a bad tax system. Hartford has been screwing around with its property tax system for decades. In 1989, the city capped tax hikes on residential properties and paid for it with a surcharge on commercial taxpayers. This was supposed to encourage homeownership. It didn't, but it did drive up the tax rate on businesses.
Five years ago, city leaders worked out a plan to phase out the surcharge. This was supposed to lower taxes on business. But somehow, business assessments sharply increased and taxes on small businesses shot up. The recession hit shortly thereafter, the second whammy for many city businesses.
Hartford is in a box. The city needs to increase its grand list. To do that it must attract business. But it is very hard to attract business when you have far and away the highest commercial tax rate in the state, 77.17 mills, about 35 points higher than the rates in New Haven, Bridgeport and Waterbury.
Step one is to control spending, and the Segarra administration gets this. The city lowered the tax rate by 1 mill this year, which is a bit more impressive than it seems because a multimillion-dollar gap had to be filled first. The trend has to continue, and that means looking through the couch cushions for savings. Can Hartford afford the largest police and fire departments in the state? No, in a word.
A way must be found to entice small businesses back to the city. Blogger and city council candidate Kevin Brookman has an idea, one that state Rep. Matthew Ritter has picked up on, that is worth exploring. It is to offer the region's average tax rate to any business that will locate or expand in Hartford. So say the region's average is 35 mills. That's what the business would pay in Hartford, for some period of time.
The obvious problem is that it is unfair to the businesses that have stuck it out in the city and are paying more than 70 mills. They would have to be convinced that 35 percent of something is better than 70 percent of nothing. Run it up the flag pole; the city has to do something.
Hartford should find a way to protect mixed-use structures such as the Bonetti Florist building. These are an asset, a wise use of space, the essence of a city. There are hundreds left in Hartford and they should be treasured.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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