Town Hall at night. / Photo by Thane Grauel
Town Hall at night. / Photo by Thane Grauel

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — The Board of Finance on Wednesday set the new mill rate for town property owners.

It’s an annual checkpoint done everywhere that most might find as exciting as watching paint dry. But this year member Danielle Dobin sparked something of a philosophical debate over whether it should be done at the last minute, without a chance for the public to hear the numbers before the board makes a decision.

The board was poised to vote on the new tax rate following the Representative Town Meeting’s final approval of a $243.14 million budget for the 2024-25 fiscal year earlier this month. The new fiscal year starts July 1.

To finance the new spending package, the mill rate will be 18.62, an increase of 1.47 percent over the current year. That’s $18.62 per $1,000 of assessed value (houses are assessed at 70 percent of value).

According to information from Finance Director Gary Conrad, that means the owner of a house valued at $1 million, who last year paid $12,845, would see that rise next year to $13,034, or $189, a 1.47 percent increase.

A house valued at $1.5 million would see its tax bill rise from this year’s $19,268 to $19,551, $284 more.

The board used $5.9 million from the reserve fund to keep the mill rate increase down, according to Chairman Lee Caney.

Caney said at Wednesday’s meeting that the coming tax increase is about the same increase as last year.

Member Danielle Dobin asked if the tax-rate decision could be continued to the next meeting, but was told a statutory deadline had to be met.

Danielle Dobin.
Danielle Dobin

“Hopefully next year we can talk about this a little bit earlier, because when we’re talking about something like the mill rate, I’m a little uncomfortable we’re talking about it, it’ll be in the paper and nobody from the public has the opportunity to come and weigh in before we’re making a decision,” she said.

Caney said there are many financial variables at play.

“That number that we’ll be looking at will be helpful for us, but it’s not a really good number …,” he said. “We have to be so careful with those projections because there are so many variables.”

“I would question what real-life practicality it has to make policy decisions,” member Michael Keller said of an earlier discussion. “I’d be a little hesitant to make that the gospel in any sense.”

“I would agree it shouldn’t be the gospel, but I respectfully disagree … this is good hygiene,” member Jeff Hammer said. “This is good hygiene to take what are not too many variables, put them into a spreadsheet and run scenario analysis on it. It’s something that you do prophylactically to prevent surprises. And I think it’s very manageable because we have big ticket capital items and we know what the debt is going to be on that. We have grand list history going back 20 years, so we can kind of normalize rates. There’s a lot of data that we have that is very comparable that would allow us to do this.”

Liz Heyer and Lee Caney.
Liz Heyer and Lee Caney

Caney said that next year he’ll ask local news outlets to publicize the discussion.

He was doubtful about public interest, when compared to other issues, such as constructing a new Long Lots Elementary School.

“The mill rate is extremely important, it’s more of a financial decision based on our numbers, so it’s very hard for the public to even get a sense of what is going on, but I’ll publicize it more next year,” Caney said.

“If people wanted to comment the opportunity is here,” Keller said. “This isn’t a surprise meeting by any stretch of the imagination. I would welcome more comment, but I kind of disagree that we need to make it a campaign issue.”

“I don’t think it’s fair to compare a double-bounce to a campaign issue,” Dobin replied.

Conrad said the numbers change often.

“This sheet could be done right after I publish the budget,” he said of the mill rate calculation. “But it’s going to change 15 times because if you cut something or we increase something, or every month when we’re taking a look at year-end, that changes the forecast.”

“The value of public comment isn’t only whether or not it impacts our thinking, it’s also to ensure that the public has an opportunity to participate in deciding the tax rate, which is frankly really fundamental with regard to our country as you guys know, ‘No taxation without representation.’ ”

Danielle dobin

“Is the public input going to impact the decision?” member Liz Heyer asked. “If a hundred people come and say they don’t want the mill rate raised or they do, are we going to change our decision based on that, or are we going to change the decision based on the numbers in front of us?”

“As a publicly elected board, my intention is always to hear what the public has to say,” Dobin said. “… the value of public comment isn’t only whether or not it impacts our thinking, it’s also to ensure that the public has an opportunity to participate in deciding the tax rate, which is frankly really fundamental with regard to our country as you guys know, ‘No taxation without representation.’ ”

“I don’t remember any public comment on the mill rate ever. I don’t remember ever receiving a letter from a member of the public on the mill rate.”

lee caney

“The public has the opportunity to come tonight, we’re talking about it tonight, it’s been on our calendar, we’ve talked about it at other meetings,” Caney said. “If the public wanted to come and comment, we don’t need a second meeting after this. No one came. I invite the public, I want the public to come, I want to hear what they have to say, though I agree with Liz, I don’t know how persuasive it’s going to be because it’s a purely financial decision, but invite them to come.”

“I don’t remember any public comment on the mill rate ever,” Caney said. “I don’t remember ever receiving a letter from a member of the public on the mill rate.”

Dobin said she was going respectfully agree to disagree with Caney.

The vote to approve the next mill rate was unanimous.

Thane Grauel grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond for 36 years. Reach him at editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.