Bridgeport Neighborhood Trust pleads for tax relief

Photo of Brian Lockhart
Thre recently completed Westgate Apartments, seen here at the corner of Fairfield and West Avenues, in Bridgeport, Conn. Oct 12, 2018.

Thre recently completed Westgate Apartments, seen here at the corner of Fairfield and West Avenues, in Bridgeport, Conn. Oct 12, 2018.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

BRIDGEPORT — A missed deadline and an unexpectedly high real estate assessment threaten a new low-income housing complex and, according to its developer, the prominent non-profit’s future projects.

“It’s pretty dire for us right now,” Liz Torres, Bridgeport Neighborhood Trusts chief executive officer, told City Council members and staff from Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration this week.

Torres is seeking short- and long-term help with a $225,523 tax bill for Westgate Apartments, the 48-unit affordable development that opened a year ago at 515 West. Ave. Several of the units house veterans.

“We don’t have the resources to pay,” Torres said. And, she emphasized, as long as that debt looms over the organization, BNT remains on a “watch list” and unable to secure financing for future buildings around town.

Torres admitted that BNT is partly to blame for its financial woes. The non-profit was supposed to apply to the city for a special urban enterprise zone designation that would have kept Westgate’s tax bill around $13,000 — the value of the vacant land — for a few years, then gradually increase what was paid the city.

“We are accepting full responsibility for having missed the deadline,” Torres said.

Making that problem worse, the completed Westgate’s property assessment was unexpectedly high — $4.18 million, resulting in the current tax hit of $225,523. Torres is appealing that assessment, but it could take months and plenty of legal fees.

“My only explanation is they assessed the property as a straight market-rate development,” she said.

So BNT is asking City Hall and the council for two forms of relief: To retroactively label Westgate an urban enterprise zone, immediately reducing Torres’ taxes, and then to consider a 20-year tax break to address the current and any future problems with the real estate assessment.

“Time is of the essence for us on this issue,” Torres said.

Politics and taxes

Bridgeport Neighborhood Trust is viewed by many in the city as a vital partner in revitalizing neighborhoods. Torres said the non-profit currently owns 20 buildings containing a total of 208 apartments plus commercial space and pays $350,000 annually in taxes.

“Without us, there just wasn’t any investment happening in these areas,” Torres told council members.

Proposed in 2015, Westgate Apartments cost $13.5 million and was built atop a vacant lot behind a Walgreens Pharmacy. Initially, BNT had sought a 20-year tax abatement from then-Mayor Bill Finch’s administration to help keep the rents for Westgate’s units stable.

But though those tax subsidies were initially approved by a council subcommittee, they were effectively killed at the full council’s final meeting before 2015’s mayoral election when former Mayor Joe Ganim returned to City Hall.

Bridgeport’s chief executive in the 1990s, Ganim successfully sought his old job back in 2015, defeating Finch in that summer’s primary, then winning November’s general election. During the campaign, Ganim complained about the length and size of the tax breaks awarded under Finch to developers — fueling what had already been growing opposition on the council to such subsidies.

After that, BNT’s tax package was tabled in a 10 to 8 vote, effectively killing it before Ganim and a new council were sworn in.

“We had to restructure the deal,” Torres said, which led to the idea of the urban enterprise zone designation.

Thomas Gill, Ganim’s economic development director, also attended Torres’ meeting with council members this week. Gill urged they support making Westgate an urban enterprise zone “with the understanding she might come back to the council with a longer tax deal.”

Gill’s department has the power to provide some tax assistance to help developers break ground on projects without a council vote. But Gill noted in the case of Westgate, “we cannot because it’s built already.”

Councilwoman Jeanette Herron was not a member when BNT’s tax incentives were tabled in 2015. Herron told Torres that BNT does “a great job” but emphasized “I won’t agree with 20 years” worth of tax breaks.

Councilman Ernie Newton, also elected after that 2015 vote, asked why Gill’s department could not have worked with the tax assessor to ensure Westgate’s property assessment was lowered.

“It’s not our job to tell a tax assessor how to assess a building,” Gill said. “They know this stuff. Whether they made a mistake on this one, I have no idea. ... But the onus isn’t on us.”

Like Herron and Newton, Council President Aidee Nieves also was not sitting on the council in late 2015 when BNT’s initial tax incentives were tabled. Nieves encouraged her colleagues to vote in favor of the urban enterprise zone and asked Gill and his staff to craft 10, 15 and 20-year tax abatement proposals for Westgate for the council to consider.

“I know some people have a lot of issues when you hear ‘abatement,’” Nieves said. “We’d rather have successful projects than abandoned buildings.”