Board of Finance members meet Wednesday night. (Photo by Thane Grauel)

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — The price of gas, food and just about everything else has been rising at a rate many find alarming, but the town’s property owners won’t see any increase in their tax bills in the coming year.

The Board of Finance voted Wednesday night to use $5.9 million from the reserve to keep the mill rate — and therefore the property tax bills — the same for the upcoming year. The mill rate remains 18.07.

The Bill Remains the Same

Gary Conrad, the town’s finance director, said after the meeting that if you own a $1-million home, the assessed value would be 70 percent of that, or $700,000. A mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of assessed value. So that means the property owner would get an annual tax bill for $12,649.

Gary Conrad, finance director, addresses the BOF. (Photo by Thane Grauel)

Because assessments won’t change this year, whatever bill a property owner paid this fiscal year will be the same in 2022-23.

To keep the mill rate flat, board member Brian Stern said, about $5.9 million would be used from the reserve.

“That’s already down to 4.2 (million) because we overachieved this year by $1.7 million,” he said.

“I think it’s relatively risk-free, this decision,” Stern said, noting that the town has a healthy reserve fund.

Fellow board members agreed.

Recession Predicted

Chairwoman Sheri Gordon said a recession is predicted and that pension funds would not be performing the way they have.

“We’ve been very lucky for many years,” she said. “But the market is always going to swing. This is not something people didn’t see coming, but it’s good to be prepared for it.”

Gordon then proposed the mill rate be kept at the current level. The vote was unanimous.

Just before the tax rate was discussed, Stern gave an overview of an analysis he and member Jay DesMarteau had done of the town’s capital forecast, which includes Board of Education projects.

Projects include a new fire headquarters and a major renovation or replacement of Long Lots Elementary.

“There is a drastic increase in spending forecast in the plans for the town and by the Board of Ed,” Stern said.

The current debt service is about $11.5 million a year, which is about 5.2 percent of the operating budget, lower than the 6 to 10 percent it has historically been.

Current Debt Tops 100M

Debt per capita in Westport, he said, is $3,870, and the town’s current debt is about $104 million.

“If you take the 10-year horizon that we assumed, our debt will increase to between $350 and $375 million in year 10,” he said.“That is about 3.5 times the current level.”

He said the debt per capita would increase from the current $3,870 to $13,500.

“Now that’s scary because that level was 2.5 times the level of any town in Connecticut,” he said.

“It’s not an emergency, but at some point we have to say what are we comfortable with living at on an ongoing basis,” Stern said.

He said spending on schools caused a similar spike in debt levels as experienced 20 years ago.

Edge of Debt Capacity

“We probably can afford it, because our ability to pay is exceptional,” Stern said. But, he said, that would put the town at the edge of its debt capacity.

“It means that a surprise, like Coleytown Middle School (which had a costly mold problem), starts to become unaffordable,” he said.

“The main thing we should take away from this … is getting the public educated,” said member Lee Caney. “People will have to understand that it’s going to cause their taxes to go up.”

“There are going to be things over the next 10, 15 years that we can’t forecast sitting here today, right?” said member James Foster.

“We really have to make sure we’re working together in a transparent, totally open fashion to have the dialogue,” he said.

Thane Grauel is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Westport Journal. For more information click here.