Blue Back's Impact Felt

Overtakes Westfarms On Town Grand List

Courant Staff Writer

March 4 2007

WEST HARTFORD -- The still-under-construction Blue Back Square development has overtaken Westfarms mall as the town's top taxpayer, according to the new list of assessed values for property in town.

Even before any part of Blue Back Square was complete, the development's assessed value as of Oct. 1 was $39.7 million, easily surpassing by $5 million the value of the portion of Westfarms - nearly a third - that is in town.

Westfarms had been the top taxpayer for seven years. When Blue Back Square is complete, the complex, with more than $100 million in private investment in new stores, offices, condominiums, apartments and a movie theater, will dwarf assessments for the mall and all other properties in town.

In addition to the change in the Top 10 list, the assessed value of real estate in town grew in 2006 by 71 percent from the year before - an increase overwhelmingly due to a delayed state-mandated revaluation that was West Hartford's first in seven years.

"In effect, we've been in a time warp since 1999," Assessor Joanne Ferraresso said.

The assessed value of real estate grew to $5.5 billion as of Oct. 1, up from $3.2 billion as of Oct. 1, 2005. The value of residential property increased 77 percent, and the value of commercial property increased 49 percent, she said.

As expected since 2003, when town officials got state permission to delay revaluation, the change will shift part of the tax burden from commercial to residential property owners.

Residents who bought the most affordable homes in recent years will see some of the largest increases in assessed values. High demand for such low-end homes has driven up their values, said Ron Van Winkle, the town's community services director.

The assessed value of a property - the key factor along with the tax rate that determines an owner's tax bill - is 70 percent of market value. The median value for a home in West Hartford is now about $300,000, about double from 10 years ago, town officials said.

Town officials are still preparing a 2007-08 budget, so it is not clear how much money the town will need to raise in taxes.

Many towns took advantage of the state law that allowed revaluation to be deferred, said Kevin Maloney, a spokesman for the 140-member Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. He had not heard of another town with a 70 percent increase in assessed values for real estate. Still, he said, the spike in housing values resulted in increased valuations and increased property taxes across the board in Connecticut, he said.

As West Hartford officials begin work on a budget for 2007-08, the revaluation is another unusual factor in a year when the state budget Gov. M. Jodi Rell recently proposed includes an increase of nearly $4.4 million in education money for West Hartford and the elimination of the car tax over five years.

"This is a more complicated budget than we've ever had," Mayor Scott Slifka said.

Although the town council won't adopt a new budget and new tax rate until late April, town officials said the tax rate is expected to decrease as a result of the rise in assessed values from the 2006 revaluation. Homeowners who have had the largest proportionate increases in home values will probably pay more in taxes, and those with modest proportionate increases in values may see decreases in taxes, according to initial town estimates.

The town last implemented a revaluation in 1999. State law requires municipalities to conduct a revaluation every four years. But when West Hartford completed a revaluation in 2003, a new state law allowed the town to delay revaluation for three years. The town then completed a new revaluation as of Oct. 1 last year.

The revaluation reflects the change in values of homes and other property since 1999, Van Winkle said.

Consider, for example, condominium units on Kane Street that were selling in the $30,000 range before the 1999 revaluation. One unit with a market value of $27,000 was assessed at $19,000 back then, according to the assessor's office. In December 2005, it sold for $120,000; the current assessed value after the Oct. 1 revaluation is $84,500.

Residents who have lived in town for a long time - including elderly and retired homeowners who might be on fixed incomes - also might have seen large increases in the values of their homes and could also bear some of the shift.

"It's a major issue for the future of this community - how we handle these kinds of tax shifts and increases in values," Van Winkle said. "It's important to the strength of this community. It's not meant to be a community where we chase people away if you bought your house here, raised your family here and retired here. It's not to our interest to see those people have to move away from West Hartford."

To address such issues, the town council is considering phasing in the effect of revaluation over a period of perhaps five years, and it is considering a property tax freeze for residents 70 and older who meet income eligibility requirements.

Town officials have repeatedly cautioned homeowners not to apply the current tax rate to the new assessed values because that would give an incorrect estimate of taxes in the upcoming town budget.

"The mill rate will be coming down," Ferraresso said.

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Copyright 2007, Hartford Courant