Westport's revenue 'bubble' bucks nation's economic woes
Communities across the nation are suffering budgetary woes because of the economic downturn. Westport town government, however, has yet to feel the fiscal pinch.
From the Tax Collector to the Town Clerk and other municipal departments, revenue collections are holding up despite the red ink overwhelming other governmental entities.
"I think we're doing very well, especially considering the times," said Peggy Klein, the town's tax collector. "As of May, we collected 97.76 percent of the active collectable taxes as of July 2010."
That percentage doesn't even include this June. Once that is factored in, this year could eclipse last year's collection rate -- 98.24 percent, which was very slightly higher than the rate two years ago of 98.23 percent.
"I expect to be at least there (by the end of June) and anything more would be a smile on my face," Klein said. "The collection rate remains strong. We are doing well, even as far as collecting delinquent taxes. I hope it continues. I hope it spreads throughout the state."
Klein noted percentage of tax collection would likely be higher, but that is tempered by the town's tax-deferral program for seniors of a certain age and income.
"I think we're in a bubble," she said. In nearly every category of revenue collection in her department, this year's numbers exceed last year's figures.
"We're not seeing foreclosures doubling and tripling," she said. "We're just holding our own. And that's good. I don't think other towns can say that right now."
Total revenue collected in 2010-11 through May by the Town Clerk's office is 25 percent higher than preceding fiscal year. The current year's figure so far has tallied $2,074,834, an increase of $421,635 over a comparable period last year. In fact, in 13 different categories -- from marriage licenses to personal property trade names -- nearly every one has seen more revenue. The only exception is fishing and hunting licenses, and Strauss believes that category declined because the state now allows the forms to be downloaded directly from a website, putting a dent in the $1 per license fee that town has been collecting.
The largest category of collection in the Town Clerk's Office is real estate conveyance tax. Real estate conveyance taxes, the Town Clerk's office collected $1,493,313 in 2010-11 compared to $1,152,326 a year earlier.
"Though the values (of the homes) may not have withstood the economy, the conveyance tax paid has still increased, a result of 92 more sales this year over last year," Strauss said.
Westport has seen a slight spike in marriages, 153 in 2010-11 for a total of $2,907 in state fees, compared to 146 in 2009-2010 for a total of $2,774 in state fees. A marriage license fee is $30, of which $19 is forwarded to the state on a monthly basis. The other $11 remains in Westport and is added to the general fund balance.
The vital records category -- copies of birth certificates, death certificates and marriage licenses, along with burial and cremation permits -- was also higher than last year, but that has been the trend for some time.
"I've seen a steady increase every year in vital records," said Strauss. "I believe it is due to the fact that when homeland security came into existence laws changed to try to prevent identity theft. In order to get anything done nowadays, people need to verify more vital information with certified documents."
There have been no fee increases in the last two years that would affect the collection rate by the Town Clerk's Office, according to Strauss.
Steve Smith, the town's building official, also reports higher revenue taken in by his office. There were 70 demolition permits issued in fiscal year 2009-10, as opposed to 93 in the current year. In addition, total fees collected in this current fiscal year have tallied $1,165,261, a $171,432 jump from a year ago.
"Revenues have exceeded expectations," said Smith. "Commercial tenant fit-outs are up significantly. I have heard Westport's construction and new home activity is the strongest in Fairfield County and I would guess that means the state."
While Parks and Recreation Director Stuart McCarthy said his department's revenue, at just over $4 million is down 3 percent versus last year -- which he believes is due, in part, to poor weather this spring -- he expects a "strong Father's Day weekend and a good month of June" will help the department meet its annual projection of $4.6 million in revenues by the end of the fiscal year.
The Planning and Zoning Department was unable to provide year-to-year comparative data, but P&Z Director Laurence Bradley said the 15 slots on his daily sign-in sheet for permits have often necessitated a second page. Last Friday, 21 people signed in. Two days earlier, 18 people affixed their John Hancock.
"The level of activity is up just based on how many people have come in and talked to us," he said. The zoning permits equal only a small percentage of the value of the work that is done, and in the last few months, the value of the permits has been higher than in the past. For example, the P&Z Department received $82,000 for fees in connection with a $13 million-plus job in January planned by Bridgewater Associates at 500 Nyala Farms.
"I don't remember us ever issuing a permit for that much before," Bradley said.
While that is an exception, Bradley cited other significant permit fees of the past few months: a $10,000 permit for the Gap's new store in October; a $6,160 permit for the Shake Shack earlier this year, and a $2,198 permit in April for Mario Batali's new restaurant coming to 30 Charles St.
"I think we've seen it," Bradley said of the economic downturn's local impact. "I think we're seeing the upswing now. Six months to a year ago, things were slow, but now we're moving in an upward direction, in terms of both the number of permits and the value of these permits."