The revaluation: What will it mean?

The value of Ridgefield’s residential real estate has declined about 18% overall since the town’s last revaluation in 2007.

The figure appears pretty typical.

“I feel that’s average for the Fairfield County area, based on what I’ve seen from other towns — maybe a little bit below,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.

Neighboring towns including Wilton, Redding, Newtown all report value declines of about 20% with their revaluations, which are required by the state every five years.

Notices of new tax assessments — which may change more or less than the 18% average decline, depending on the specifics of the individual property — went out to  9,500 homeowners last week.

The average decline of 18% can help  homeowners judge whether their own tax bills will be a little more, about the same, or a little less as a result of the revaluation — which is built to be “revenue-neutral” on a townwide basis.

“If anybody went down 18%, they’re about a break even,” Assessor Al Garzi said. “If they went down less than 18% they might see an increase. If they went down more than 18%, they’ll see a decrease, keeping in mind also that the budget process has to take place.”

The revaluation notices will include a property’s old assessment and it’s new assessment, and homeowners can use those figures to calculate how their change compares — and whether their taxes are going up or down

Mr. Marconi said Wednesday, “That means if you go down 15%, then you’ll have about a 3% increase. If you go down 21% you’ll have about a 3% decrease, because you went down more than the average.”

The notices remind people not to try calculating their taxes using the old mill rate, since the rate of taxation will rise to compensate for the decline in values.

Property owners opening envelopes should also remember that the “assessed value” they’re looking is designed to be 70% of current market value — not the full value — for each piece of real estate.

It’s also worth noting that properties may have lost a bit more value since the absolute peak of the real estate market than their revaluations suggest.

“The market peaked in 2005, 2006,” said Jack Baldaserini of Century 21 Landmark Properties. “The last revaluation was in 2007.”

A veteran of 43 years in the real estate industry, Mr. Baldaserini said while properties are averaging an 18% decline since 2007, they might have lost 5% to 10% more before that.

“If a house was worth $1 million in 2005-06, it might have only been worth $900,000 in the revaluation of 2007,” he said.

The new assessments — and, when it’s done, the new Grand List of taxable property — are dated October 2012. But they  don’t affect taxes until next year — the 2013-14 fiscal year, which starts July 1, 2013. Ridgefield’s Grand List totaled some $5.6 billion before the revaluation.

Informal appeal hearings are being offered, but Mr. Garzi said Wednesday that most people calling the assessor’s office were satisfied to hear the numbers explained.

“Not a lot of people have signed up,” he said.

The day after Christmas there were four hearings scheduled, and another 13 planned Thursday.

“A lot of people have called to talk to us. Probably 10% of everybody we’ve spoken to today thought the numbers were off, and if I had to guess I’d say we’ve talked to 25-30 people.

“Most people call to talk to me and we go over the numbers and it’s been well received, so far,” he said. “It’s only the first day we’re back. If first impressions are anything, it looks pretty good.”

The informal hearings are being conducted by hearing officers from eQuality Valuation Services, the consulting firm that helped with the revaluation, with oversight from Mr. Garzi and his staff.

“We will monitor it to be sure things go well,” Mr. Garzi said. “There are going to be four hearings going on every 15 minutes.”

The hearings are at the Recreation Center weekdays and Saturdays, through Wednesday, Jan. 9, except Sundays, or New Years Eve and New Year’s Day, Monday, Dec. 31 and Tuesday, Jan. 1.

On weekdays, hearings will be 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., with the goal of having them completed by 6:45. The Saturday hearings are scheduled from 9 to 5:45, ending by 6.

Call 1-800-515-7177 to make an appointment.

“If anybody has any problems with the company, they can call us: 431-2706,” Mr. Garzi said.

The 18% average decrease applies only to residential real estate.

The numbers haven’t been completed yet on commercial real estate, motor vehicles, and business equipment. They should be done soon — the  revised Grand List is due at the end of January.

But the vast bulk of the Grand List is the residential property, so changes to the remaining categories aren’t expected to affect taxes much.

“In the old Grand List residential  was 86%-87%, in the high 80s, anyway,” Mr. Garzi said.

And he was confident that any changes derived from work revaluing the other portions of the Grand List would only benefit homeowners.

“If anything, that’s going to reduce the burden to the residential property owners,” Mr. Garzi said.

The description of overall revaluation as “revenue neutral”  means the revaluation is designed to rebalance the tax burden, not to raise more money. As everyone’s assessment goes down, the tax rate will go up — rising in proportion to the fall in value of all the town’s property.

This is one reason non-real estate parts of the Grand List — like cars, and business property — may end up carrying a little more of the burden.

But the changes that flow from the revaluation’s rebalancing of the tax burden are only part of story on next year’s taxes.

The other part is in the annual budget process.

The budget with its seemingly inevitably higher spending requests may produce a tax increase that would go on top of whatever changes an individual property owner has as a result of the revaluation.

Mr. Marconi said he couldn’t predict at this point how much the proposed budget will increase spending and the consequent amount of taxes that have to be raised.

“Who knows? Are we looking at 2%?” Mr. Marconi said. “Some of the areas of concern are what happens with the State of Connecticut, given the massive deficit the state is now looking at.”

Although it’s not a big percentage in an affluent town like Ridgefield, state grants do help support a wide variety of municipal activities, from schools and special education to road and sidewalk repairs.

“The governor has stated he will not increase taxes again. He’s negotiated with the unions and told the unions there will not be more layoffs. When you put those two things into the equation, it does not bode well for municipalities,” Mr. Marconi said.

With town coffers filled-up by the $4.3 million CL&P refund the town got last year as the result of years of overbilling by the utility, the current year’s budget gives taxpayers a roughly 1% tax decrease.

That used by using $3.2 million of the CL&P refund. There’s about $1.1 million of it left to help close the gap, but essentially this year’s taxpayers will have to kick in an additional $2.1 million to get to the baseline where any tax increase due to more spending would start from.

To help with that, Mr. Marconi said, the town has some big building permit fees coming in from projects like the library and The Prospector theater. And, there was about $1 million in back taxes and interest collected from the tax auction earlier this year.

And, the town’s fund balance — a multi-year surplus that is used a little like a savings account — is now more than $11 million. That’s above the 8%-to-9% of the annual budget the finance board likes to maintain, so some of that could be used.

“Our fund balance is in pretty good shape,” Mr. Marconi said.

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