Why Hartford should think about tax rebates for Christmas
Hartford property tax collections in Fiscal Year 2018 ran well ahead of the projections made in late 2016. The selectboard should consider an immediate one-time rebate to put some or all of this money back in the pockets of its citizens.
The last time there was an enormous surplus in tax collections was, as you may have guessed, the last time Hartford did a town-wide property valuation, back in 2007 taking effect in 2008. This money created the first pool of reserves at the target 10% (or 15% depending on who you ask) for 'rainy day funds.' By the end of FY 2012, despite the Hurricane Irene expenses, this balance stood at $2.1 million, well in excess of the 1.4 million target. The $700,000 difference was raided to make up a $300,000 shortfall in the cost of redoing WABA (the ice rink) with the money in the bond (by selectboard vote), a slew of pet projects the town manager wanted done on roads (without a selectboard vote).
At the time, I was on the selectboard and one of my friends, who is as conservative as I am liberal, asked why the town was holding on to his tax dollars in this fund. Not that he was necessarily against how the money was spent ultimately, but that in principal, in town meeting form of government, a big surplus without consent as to its use was an invitation to town management and selectboard members to fund pet projects without having to make the case to the voters for a bond or for higher taxes for one particular year.
I've thought a lot about this over the years, and have come to agree that with people seeming to feel that they are taxed to the limit, it's really important that we take care to distinguish between spending on the present and spending on the future, and where those monies come from.
Current expenses -- salaries, bond repayments, supplies and the like all ought to be covered by the property tax and whatever grants we may get. Future expenses -- new trucks, new buildings, that sort of thing -- should be paid for with bonds. Why? Because the new items will last a long time and should be paid for by town residents who will benefit from their use.
Think about it: the $300,000 that came out of reserve to prop up the shortfall in the hockey arena part of the 2013 Joint Town School Recreation Bond, that money came from taxpayers in 2008,2009,2010,2011,2012 -- five years of paying taxes that got spent on something to be enjoyed by residents in 2015 and beyond.
There were voices in 2016 that predicted the revaluation was going to produce more taxes than were being projected. The selectboard should consider rebating some or all of the $1.9 million. Say, for argument's sake, $800,000. Roughly speaking that would be $50+ for each $1000 in taxes paid in FY 2018. It wouldn't take much to crank up our new accounting and tax billing software and put a credit on the bills of all those who paid taxes in 2018 and are still on the rolls. And for those who really need it most, the opportunity to ask for a check.