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Politics in play? Tax rate rises less than 1% amid bickering

Updated 2:40 pm, Friday, May 24, 2013
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The Board of Finance voted 5-2 Thursday night to increase the town's tax rate by 0.9 percent in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, which means the average homeowner in Westport -- where homes on average are assessed at $1.2 million -- will pay approximately $142 more in taxes in the fiscal year starting July 1.

The tax rate will rise from 17.91 mills to 18.07 mills, which means the average homeowner will pay $18.07 for every $1,000 of a home's assessed value. A property's assessed value is equal to 70 percent of its market value.

Board of Finance Chairman Avi Kaner said the modest tax increase is needed to finance the 2.4 percent increase in the new town budget of $193 million -- including a 4 percent boost in Board of Education spending -- and also to provide flexibility to deal with unforeseen expenditures. He cited such unexpected costs as those associated with Superstorm Sandy and February's massive snowstorm.

"This is a very good story for the town," Kaner, a Republican, said. "Even though our budget increase is 2.44 percent, our tax increase will only be 0.9 percent."

With the higher tax rate, a home assessed at $500,000 will be taxed an additional $80 next fiscal year, said Finance Director Gary Conrad.

Earlier this month the Representative Town approved a $193 million budget for 2013-14, including $104 million in education operating expenditures, $12.7 for schools' debt service and $ 75.6 million for municipal spending. Overall spending will rise by approximately $4.6 million next year.

Last year, the Board of Finance approved a 2.75 tax increase, raising the tax rate from 17.43 mills to 17.91 mills.

Two Democrats -- Board of Finance Vice Chairwoman Helen Garten and Brian Stern -- voted against the tax increase during Thursday's Town Hall meeting. Garten, who is a candidate for first selectman, wanted the tax rate to remain the same.

"I think we should have stayed at zero percent," Garten said. "Frankly the difference is extremely minor in the scheme of things. Given that I think our revenue estimates for the fiscal year about to end were too conservative, I thought it was a good idea to give taxpayers a break. It has been a difficult year. Taxpayers went through Hurricane Sandy, a number of storms, a number of them had damages and home expenditures. And if we could give them a break, I thought this was the year to do it."

Kaner, a GOP candidate for the Board of Selectmen, accused Garten of playing politics, noting that Garten can now try to sell voters on the fact that she wanted no new taxes.

"I suspect that the vote was inspired by positioning for this November's election, as opposed to demonstrating the fiscal responsibility we have shown over the last two years," said Kaner, who is running as the running mate of Jim Marpe, the former Board of Education chairman, the expected GOP first selectman candidate.

Garten denied Kaner's contention.

"I've never made decisions based on politics," she said. "I make decisions based on what's best for the taxpayer. We really have tried to keep taxes low during our time on the board, Brian and myself. I was a little dismayed to hear charges of politics because that's really not in anybody's mind. And I wouldn't charge my friends on the other side of the aisle of doing that either."

In a prepared statement released after the finance board's vote, Marpe noted that increasing the mill rate by less than 1 percent will still allow Westport to maintain financial reserves of 10 percent. The Board of Finance has recommended keeping financial reserves between 9 and 11 percent.

"This will allow us to continue to enhance our town's infrastructure and amenities such as the beaches, Longshore Park and golf course and the river, fully meet our financial obligations, continue to aggressively pay down our debts, and be able to respond to unknown expenditures such as the school security implementation," Marpe said in the statement.