Big tax bill bumps cause concern in Trumbull

TRUMBULL — Dave Allen has lived in Trumbull his whole life. The 69-year-old said he’s always loved his town, but that love was tested recently when he received his property tax bill.

“My tax bill increased $1,300 from previous year,” said Allen, who lives on Pemberton Drive. “That’s a 17 percent increase.”

While the bump is “not a hardship” for Allen, who is still employed, he described it as “significant,” and “one of the biggest increases I’ve ever seen.” Allen said he’s not the only one seeing a big bump in property taxes.

“I’ve talked to a couple of my neighbors and their tax bills have increased around that amount of money,” he said.

It’s a complaint that First Selectman Vicki Tesoro has been hearing a lot of, to the point that she published a lengthy statement on the town website explaining in detail why property assessments and taxes had increased as much as they have.

“I’m very concerned about the taxpayers,” she said. “I live here as well and never want to see our taxes go up.”

While unfortunate, she said the increases were somewhat inevitable due to the state-mandated revaluation that took place earlier this year. Revaluation is the process of obtaining updated real estate assessments of properties in town.

Trumbull’s last revaluation was in 2015, and the town was supposed to do one in 2021, but Tesoro got it delayed one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it had on businesses in town. She said she tried to delay it another year, but was unsuccessful.

As a result, the revaluation ended up shifting more than $7 million in property tax burden from commercial to residential taxpayers. That’s due largely to the fact that commercial property values declined during the pandemic. For instance, Tesoro said, Westfield Trumbull Mall, the town’s biggest taxpayer, decreased in value by more than $110 million.

A town document presented during a Board of Finance meeting last month stated that, under the new mill rate of 33.64, taxes could go up by an average of 15 percent. But Tesoro has said that figure is misrepresentative as revaluation can lead to vastly different assessments, even of homes in the same neighborhood of comparable value.

Tesoro and some other officials, including Board of Finance chair Lainie McHugh, said the bright side of the revaluation is that many homes increased in value. But that’s cold comfort to those like Allen who have seen their tax bills jump.

“I’m a huge supporter of the town of Trumbull, but these taxes are just making the town of Trumbull very unappealing for residents and businesses,” he said.

Both McHugh and Tesoro said the tax increase isn’t the result of overspending by the town. In the statement on the town website, Tesoro said the town’s approved 2022-23 budget carries a budget spending increase of 3.24 percent, which is under the rate of inflation. McHugh echoed those thoughts.

“I think the change (in taxes) for some is higher than others. My own home taxes increased by about $1,000,” she said. “But it has nothing to do with our spending. We did a really good job of keeping spending down and of keeping town services in place.”

Not everyone agrees with that, including Republican Board of Finance member Elaine Hammers. She said she had been vocal about the town using about $4.6 million federal American Rescue Plan funds in the 2021-22 budget.

McHugh said the town used a combination of its “rainy day” fund balance and ARPA money to offset revenue loss due to things such as decreased return on investments because of record low interest rates, and certain town programs — such as those run through the recreation department — that were closed due to COVID.

“We opted to keep tax increases as low as possible in 2020 and 2021 for our taxpayers, residents and businesses, during the economic crisis caused by COVID while still providing for our schools and vital services,” McHugh said.

Hammers said using the ARPA funds last year put the town in a difficult position this year. “Taxes are a result of what we spend,” she said. “And I’m not saying we’re spending money frivolously. I’m saying we created a hole using federal funds that we’re now paying for.”

But McHugh said that’s not true. “Our hope this year is that revenues normalize, new development is realized in our grand list, and programs are up and running so there is no funding cliff moving forward,” she said.

Regardless of the cause, all town officials interviewed said they’re aware that this is a tough tax year for many residents. Tesoro said there are some ways that residents can help mitigate their costs. One is the child tax rebate, recently signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont. Some residents might be eligible for a rebate of up to $750 — $250 per child up to three children.

Tesoro said that she hears residents’ concerns, but that there was little that could have been done to prevent this. “I know people are upset,” she said. “I get it.”