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Drive to 'equalize' tax rate for vehicles in state faces bumpy road

Published 2:25 pm, Saturday, April 21, 2012
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Fashion mogul Tommy Hilfiger pays roughly $6,400 a year in motor vehicle taxes to his hometown of Greenwich on his 2003 Ferrari Enzo, which has a book value of just under $1 million.

The annual tax bill for the same car in Waterbury would be a staggering $26,487, however.

Bridgeport isn't much cheaper, coming in at $25,106.

Owners of cars registered in Greenwich and other towns with low vehicle tax rates could wind up paying more -- a lot more -- under a controversial proposal that is gaining traction in the General Assembly.

State Rep. Jeffrey Berger, D-Waterbury, is calling for the state to enact a uniform mill rate for motor vehicles, which threatens to pit wealthy municipalities where there is a tangible love affair for expensive imports against their less well-to-do neighbors.

"Why should that tax fluctuate from municipality to municipality?" Berger told Hearst Connecticut Newspapers. "It's just inherently unfair."

Under a bill being championed by Berger in the House, the state Office of Policy and Management would set the mill rate used by all 169 municipalities for motor vehicles.

Citing the state Office of Fiscal Analysis, Berger said the mill rate would be about $25.37 for every $1,000 of the assessed value of a motor vehicle, which is 70 percent of its full market price.

The current mill rate in Waterbury is 41.82, just a shade below Bridgeport's 39.64. Westport's mill rate is 17.43 and Fairfield's is 22.47

Greenwich, in contrast, is 10.11.

"They hate it," Berger said of Greenwich representatives. "We certainly understand that if you're in a low-mill-rate municipality as opposed to a high-mill-rate municipality. Unfortunately, there's going to be winners and losers."

Greenwich lawmakers and car aficionados hope the proposal goes the way of the Pinto.

"The concept itself is fundamentally un-American," said state Rep. Alfred Camillo, R-Greenwich, who characterized it as a blatant attempt to rob Peter to pay Paul.

"We pay higher prices for almost everything. You're going to hit them again just because they have a Greenwich ZIP code?" he asked. "It's got to stop. It really does."

Messages seeking comment from Waterbury Mayor Neil O'Leary and that city's assessor were left last week, as well as for Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch. Neither responded.

Under the Berger proposal, cities and towns with a mill rate higher than the one set by the state would be reimbursed over a period of five years with the excess taxes, which would go into a state pool.

Municipal tax collectors would be required to report how much they collect in taxes on a quarterly basis and remit the overage to the state Department of Revenue Services.

Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy sounded reluctant to climb on board with the plan in a recent statement.

"The state is not in a position to make up for any loss of revenue for municipalities that may result," Malloy said.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles has not taken a position on Berger's proposal, according to Bill Seymour, a spokesman for the agency.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, a New Haven-based lobbying group that represents 148 of the 169 cities and towns in the state, expressed its concerns over the proposal in printed testimony it submitted to the Legislature.

"Although CCM appreciates the intent behind this proposal, we are concerned that the proposal requires revenue to go to the state to be doled out to municipalities, and there will be winners and losers among municipalities due to a statewide uniform mill rate," the group wrote.

At least one out of every seven autos registered in Greenwich is a BMW or Mercedes, according to the town's tax rolls, which also boast 977 Porsches and four Maybachs, including one worth $230,000 owned by a hedge fund.

There are 117 Ferraris on the town's tax rolls, including Hilfiger's Enzo, which has fluctuated in full market value from $660,000 to $1.2 million.

Messages seeking comment from Hilfiger were left with a spokesman for his company in New York.

Ferrari produced just 400 Enzos, which can go from 0 to 60 mph in a brisk 3 seconds, thanks to a V-12 engine and its Formula One-style electrohydraulic shift transmission.

"If you were fortunate enough to buy that vehicle in Waterbury, it's insane," Berger said of the disparity in mill rates. "You get the same vehicle driving the same roadways."

Berger said to blame the inequity on poor decision making by cities like Waterbury is inaccurate.

"I don't think it has a lot to do with having your financial house in order," Berger said. "Waterbury has their finances in order."