The politics of Ganim’s tax cut
BRIDGEPORT — In retrospect, Mayor Joe Ganim’s 2015 campaign signs, “Stop Raising Taxes!”, needed a disclaimer.
That fine print should have explained that, if elected, Ganim would immediately hike taxes, blame it on his predecessor, Bill Finch, and, three years later while seeking a second term, propose a small tax cut and tout it as “the first the city has seen in 12 years.”
Subsequently, the self-described “modest relief” Ganim announced over the weekend — he estimated $150 for the average household as part of his draft 2019/20 budget — was met with some bi-partisan skepticism Monday.
“It just sounds like political expediency,” Republican Phil Blagys, a community leader from the high-taxed Black Rock neighborhood, said. “It’s a decrease, so for him it’s something to tout. For those of us who pay taxes, it doesn’t add up to much.”
After Ganim, a Democrat, and the all-Democrat City Council in 2016 upped the tax or mill rate from 42.1 mills to 54.37 mills, Blagys was among the 450 mostly furious residents who descended upon City Hall after receiving their updated bills.
Peter Spain and his wife also attended that event. Spain, a Democrat, has since been elected to the council. He said that the mayor is proposing a 1.5 percent mill rate reduction after setting a “record” with the 29 percent increase three years ago.
“You can’t attract more residents and employers with irresponsible political maneuvers like what we’re seeing from this mayor,” Spain said, arguing it is time for Bridgeport to make the controversial decision to submit to state over site of its finances.
And state Rep. Charlie Stallworth, who helped elect Ganim in 2015 but is now running against him, called the tax relief “vision-less,” “hollow” and a “campaign trick ... that the voters can see through.”
Or perhaps Ganim made a smart political calculation to boost taxes in 2016, keep them steady in 2017 and 2018, and unveil a campaign year reduction. The fury over 2016’s tax bills petered out after a few weeks, and the last two budget seasons were quiet.
“Psychologically, a (tax) reduction is always better than an increase,” Blagys said. “That will be the mayor’s soundbite, and on most people the soundbite works.”
Another mayoral candidate, state Sen. Marilyn Moore, declined comment Monday until she had seen the mayor’s full budget proposal. That document heads to the council Tuesday for a month’s worth of review by the budget committee before a final council vote in early May.
Elephant in the room
Councilman Ernie Newton, who represents the lower income East End, argued if city officials can finally figure out how to reduce taxes after three years, why not do so?
“It’s like you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Newton said. Council members are also facing re-election.
Newton reiterated the Ganim administration’s defense that it inherited a $20 million deficit from Finch, who Ganim defeated in the 2015 Democratic mayoral primary, as well as a property revaluation that impacted the 2016 tax bills.
Finch’s effort to delay implementing the revaluation until after the 2015 election was similarly viewed by some at the time as a political calculation to ensure the two-term incumbent would not have to raise taxes while campaigning for a third.
Newton also said the proposed cut was not just Ganim’s idea but something council members had been seeking for a few years.
For example, in 2016 the council, which had to vote on a final municipal budget that included estimated state aid, set aside $2.1 million in case that aid was cut. Some on the council later pushed unsuccessfully for the $2.1 million to be used for tax relief.
“It isn’t just all his (Ganim’s) own,” said Council President Aidee Nieves Monday. “It’s been a conversation.”
Scott Burns, a former Democratic council member from Black Rock who once co-chaired the budget committee, said Ganim’s tax proposal might be realistic given past efforts to shore up Bridgeport’s finances, but puts the council in a tough spot if some members would rather invest in other priorities like education.
“You don’t want to say, ‘I want to keep taxes where they are,’ even if that’s ultimately the responsible thing to do,” Burns said.
The Board of Education requested $16 million more for its budget. Ganim’s tax relief announcement over the weekend mentioned other priorities like public safety, but said nothing about the schools aside from blaming the state for cuts in education aid.
Councilman Kyle Langan, a white teacher at an inner-city public charter school, said debating Ganim’s tax cut motives “ignores the elephant in the room” — “the racist systems ... in our state that force urban municipalities to choose every year between educating youth, mental health, quality of life or lowering taxes to something more akin to our majority white suburban neighbors.”
Langan noted the suburban opposition to a state proposal to regionalize school districts that could benefit Bridgeport.
“I care little about about the motivations for this tax decrease,” Langan said.