For observers of government like yours truly, there are few things in life more amusing than one government entity trying to divorce itself from its parent. And no, I’m not talking about last week’s Brexit vote, which, since it has such profound consequences for a large swath of the world, is hardly amusing.
To wit, the Black Rock section of Bridgeport is making noises about leaving that troubled city, after wealthy residents of the toney residential peninsula bordering the town of Fairfield were hit with hefty property tax increases as a result of a recent city revaluation.
“People want to pursue a lot of options, including seceding from Bridgeport,” said ex-U.S. Comptroller General and former Republican lieutenant governor candidate David M. Walker, a Black Rock resident.
Before examining whether secession is practical, advisable or even legal, some explanation on the subject of municipal taxation is in order. Typically, property taxes hit everyone when they rise. After all, whether you own a fancy estate on the water or a raised ranch on a quarter of an acre, the rate is the same. So why were only some Bridgeport residents upset at this year’s mill rate increase from 42 to 54 and why did that rate increase by some 29 percent in the first place?
The answer is actually quite simple. Every municipality in Connecticut is required to revaluate properties within its borders every five years in order “to insure uniformity in real property valuations by eliminating inequities that may have developed since the previous revaluation,” according to the state Office of Policy and Management.
When the grand list, or total assessed value of real and personal property, rises or falls significantly since the last revaluation, the mill rate has to be adjusted. Take my town, for example.
After the revaluation in 2000, the net taxable real estate portion of the Salisbury grand list was about $596.6 million. After the 2005 revaluation, that portion of the grand list jumped to a little over $1.1 billion, a staggering increase of 84 percent in just five years. If the tax rate per thousand had stayed at 15.3, the town would have been swimming in cash, while bankrupting half its residents. So the mill rate dropped to under 8.9. Even so, those who owned property on one of the town’s pristine lakes still saw a whopping big increase in their taxes because in some cases their assessments had more than tripled since 2000.
It looks like a variation of that phenomenon happened in Bridgeport. A recently completed revaluation caused a significant decline in the grand list, which necessitated the steep increase in the mill rate. According to the office of Mayor Joe Ganim, about two-thirds of property owners saw little or no increases in their tax bills. But assessments in upscale Black Rock mostly held steady, causing 400 angry Black Rock taxpayers to turn up at a July 6 meeting of the City Council.
To give you an idea of how painful the rise in taxes is, Walker, the former U.S. Comptroller General, has lived in Black Rock for more than six years. He said he believes this year’s mill-rate hike is the highest jump in a single year in Bridgeport history and may be the steepest in U.S. history.
As for whether, Black Rock could actually break off from Bridgeport, the jury is out on that one. As far as I can tell, there is no mechanism for secession in the state of Connecticut. The state constitution is largely silent on the matter, although one section on home rule says “the General Assembly shall enact no special legislation relative to the . . . formation, consolidation or dissolution of any town, city or borough.”
There was also talk of leaving Bridgeport as recently as 1995, when David Grimshaw, then the president of the Black Rock Community Council, told The New York Times that leaving Bridgeport would require city and state approval, which would no doubt be an ugly process. Imagine the panic in down-at-the-heels Bridgeport at the real prospect of losing the real estate and personal property tax payments of 10,000 mostly well-to-do residents of the nicest part of the city.
Virtually the same thing happened more than 20 years ago when picturesque Rowayton wanted to leave gritty Norwalk over a revaluation, but nothing ever came of it. The city of Groton talked openly 30 years ago of divorcing itself financially from the town of Groton. Some town officials even went so far as to draft a three-page declaration of independence that mimicked the language of the 1776 version.
If Black Rock were to succeed, imagine the domino effect caused by the Blexit. Would Hartford’s West End want to join West Hartford? Will Highland Lake want to rid itself of the crime and high taxes of Winsted?
If Black Rock was serious about a divorce from its troubled parent, forming a separate municipality would be a daunting task. It would probably make more sense to join the town of Fairfield, to which Black Rock appears to be more geographically part of anyway and from which Black Rock broke off in 1870 to join — you guessed it — Bridgeport.
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