See How Fairfield's Spending, Taxes Increased Over Time

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This graph shows the increase in Fairfield's total spending and select portions of the budget since 2003 in raw numbers. Photo Credit: Greg Canuel
First Selectman Michael Tetreau introduced his plan for Fairfield's spending in 2013-14 last month. Photo Credit: Greg Canuel (File)
This graph shows the same three factors, taking into account inflation rates over the last decade. Photo Credit: Greg Canuel
This graph shows changes in Fairfield's mill rate for each year since 2003. Photo Credit: Greg Canuel

FAIRFIELD, Conn. – First Selectman Michael Tetreau’s proposed 2013-14 budget includes $287 million in town spending, $107 million more than Fairfield spent 10 years ago.

But there’s more at work in the budget than this 60 percent increase in the bottom line. Nationwide inflation means that the $179 million the town spent in the 2004 fiscal year wouldn’t go as far in 2014. A rising town population, especially among school-age children, means the town and the Board of Education must provide services to more citizens.

The Fairfield Daily Voice crunched some of these numbers to provide a better picture on how the town government’s spending has changed over the past decade. We’ve also included some comparisons to the two towns in Fairfield County closest to Fairfield in population: Greenwich and Stratford. 

In terms of inflation, the value of the U.S. dollar has fallen about 25 percent since 2003, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means that it would take about $1.25 to have the same buying power as $1 in 2003.

Another measure of inflation is the Consumer Price Index, which tracks the comparative prices goods in specific areas over time. The Tri-State Area’s CPI rose 27.5 percent from July 2003 (when the 2003-04 budget was adopted) to last July, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With inflation taken into account, Tetreau’s proposal for 2013-14 is about $62.63 million more than the 2003-04 budget would have been in 2013 dollars. That means that Fairfield’s spending grew by about 27.9 percent in real value over the decade.

Fairfield’s population was 59,404 as of 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, an increase of about 3.6 percent since 2000. The proposed 2013-14 budget would spend about $4,836.54 per resident. Adjusted for inflation, that would be an increase of 26.7 percent in per-capita spending from 10 years ago.

For comparison, Greenwich’s per-capita spending in the current fiscal year is $6,109.70, which marks a 13.3 percent inflation-adjusted increase since 2003. Stratford will spend about $3,714.42 per person this year, just 4.3 percent more than it did in the 2003-04 fiscal year. The state government’s per-capita spending this year will be $5,747.74, an 18.9 percent increase from 2003.

But Fairfield’s population hasn’t just grown, it’s gotten younger. Fairfield Public Schools have seen districtwide enrollment rise by more than 1,600 students since the 2003-04 school year, or 18.7 percent. As a result, Fairfield has had to spend more on its schools.

The Board of Education’s funding for the current school year is $148,936,464, a 47.7 percent increase over the last 10 years without accounting for enrollments or inflation. In 2003-04, Fairfield Public Schools spent $11,615 per pupil, or $14,536 in today’s dollars. For the 2012-13 school year, Fairfield’s per-pupil funding rate is $14,452, about $84 less.

For comparison, this year Greenwich will spend $15,819 per student for the 8,838 pupils in its public schools, according to the Greenwich Board of Education’s 2012-13 budget. Stratford’s current schools budget allots $12,559 for each of its 7,484 students.

Fairfieders’ ability to pay has risen in the last decade as well. In 2000, Fairfield’s median household income was $83,512, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In today’s dollars that would be $111,679. By the 2010 census, that figure had grown to $118,476, or $125,117 when adjusted for inflation. That’s an increase of $13,438, or 12 percent.

The portion of the budget that most taxpayers notice is the mill rate, or the number used to calculate tax bills each July. Fairfield’s mill rate has changed just 8.7 percent since 2003, going from 21.5 mills in July 2003 to 23.37 last July. But property values have risen with other costs, so tax bills have gone up even more.

For example, in mid-2003 the average home in Fairfield’s 06430 ZIP code (now 06824) sold for $670,700, according to the Greater Fairfield County MLS. A home appraised at that value would have paid a tax bill of $10,094 in taxes in July 2003. The average sales price in the same ZIP code was $781,400 in 2010, the year of the most recent property revaluation. A house with that value would have paid $12,783 in property taxes last summer.

Based on that estimate, Fairfield’s average tax bill rose 26.6 percent in the last 10 years. But when adjusting for inflation, the change was about $150, or about 1.2 percent.

See Fairfield's 2013-14 proposed budget in full detail at the town's website. 

CORRECTION: This story originally contained a typographical error regarding one of Fairfield's zip codes. 

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Comments (6)

Mattprohaska:

Hi Bud.

Curious to see the sources of your edits to the article, as it appears you are challenging the sources of the editor's data sets. Also still curious how much of the budget goes to healthcare & other contracts that can be controlled at certain times - I'm sure we'll all learn as we dig into the budget details.

Also saw your group's full-page ad in the Minuteman this week - some compelling arguments, but would love to know what your/your group's proposed solution is. What do you think the budget should be & assuming you feel passionately that it should be lower, what in your proposal gets cut to bring spending down? Thanks.

Bud Morten:

Hi Matt,

I am not challenging all of the data, just one critical datapoint.

The budget data, the CPI data, the population data, the school enrollment data all appear to be accurate, though in some cases my numbers are slightly different, and it is also worth noting that by choosing the 2003/04 to 2012/13 period, the author conveniently misses the previous five years when real spending rose even faster.

The critical datapoint, as noted below, is the author’s assumption that assessed value for FY04 was 70% of market value instead of the actual 52.3%. This relationship was not fixed at 70% until 2007, and fluctuated widely before then. To see the data for the ten-year period 2003-2012, see page 86 of the town’s 2012 Annual Financial Report @ http://www.fairfieldct.org/Finance/2012-2013/FinanceReport2012.pdf

The author’s use of median household income as a measure of “Ability to Pay” is also seriously flawed, but other than observing that it was up, by his calculations, 12% over the 2000-2013 period, he does not attempt to draw any conclusion from it. If he did, I believe his data would show that the growth in real spending over the same period was 36%, or three times his increase in MHHI (he said only that real spending increased 28% over the ten years between 2003/04 and 2013/14). The best piece I have read on the limitations of using MHHI as a measure of Affordability is entitled, How Census Income Estimates Provide Misleading Statistics on Personal Income for Connecticut Towns, which can be found at http://ctsdc.uconn.edu/Reports/CtSDC_CT_TownIncome_OP2006-01.pdf

In brief, there are many ways in which median income can, for example, remain unchanged despite significant changes in the underlying ability to pay, just one example of which is the unemployment rate.

I have not verified the data he provides on average MLS sale prices, though there may be a problem in that the mid-2003 data is attributed to ZIP code 06830, which is a Greenwich ZIP code; the “old” ZIP code for 06824 was 06430. However, it doesn’t really matter because even though his methodology is flawed (among other things by ignoring the possibility that home prices in the other Fairfield ZIP code rose significantly more or less; and by ignoring the possibility that there was a shift in the tax burden from commercial to residential, which as it turns out there was, which means that even the corrected number is understated) it produces a conclusion, using the corrected assessed value for 2003, that is at least in the ballpark of what actually happened.

Having concluded that the real increase in taxes was only 1.2% over the last ten years, it should have been obvious that there was a problem between this number and the 27% increase he previously computed for real per-capita spending over the same period. The only way both numbers could be correct if the average number of people per HH decreased dramatically and the number of taxable homes increased dramatically. The number of people per HH is usually pretty stable over decades.

With regard to how much of the town budget goes to personnel costs, the simple answer is that in the current year (FY13), personnel costs are ~80% of the BOE budget (66% salaries and 14% benefits) and ~68% of the Town budget (43% salaries and 25% benefits) excluding debt service. Combining the two, we get total personnel costs at 68% (51% salaries and 17% benefits) and debt service at 10%, leaving only 22% for everything else.

On your final question, Fairfield Taxpayer will soon publish its recommendations on what should be done to reduce the currently proposed $287 million budget for FY14 that would require a 6.4% increase in our taxes, so please stay tuned to the Web site.

Bud Morten:

Fairfield is in distress because it is becoming unaffordable

Everyone agrees that spending for schools and municipal services (like policemen, firemen, roads, bridges, beaches and parks) is a good thing because it makes Fairfield a great place to live and supports strong property values.

However, as with most things in life (e.g., sun, rain, ice cream, soft drinks and beer), we can also have too much of a good thing. At some point, spending and taxes become too high and unsustainable.

Read more at the Fairfield Taxpayer Web site: www.fairfieldtaxpayer.com

Mattprohaska:

Great analysis & perspective here. As the debate begins/continues in finalizing our budget and hopefully without much fingerpointing, hopefully someone can find how much of the proposed 6.4% increase is tied to healthcare costs and fixed contracts where there may not be as much ability to control.

Bud Morten:

Great analysis? I’m afraid not. The conclusion that the inflation-adjusted increase in the average tax bill between 2003/04 and 2012/13 was only 1% is simply nonsense. You can’t have real spending up 28% and produce only a 1% increase in real average taxes without a huge increase in the number of units being taxed. In other words, ceteris paribus, with real spending up 28%, the number of tax-paying homes and commercial properties would have had to increase by 27% to hold the average real increase in taxes to 1%. Among his many analytical errors, the key one in this respect is the author’s assumption that assessed value in 2003/04 was 70% of market value as it was in 2012/13, when in fact properties were assessed at only 52.3% of market value that year. This means that the taxes on a $670,700 home would have been $7,542 instead of $10,094, and that the increase in taxes paid therefore would have been 69.5% instead of 26.6%. This 69.5% increase is consistent with what the town reports to have been a 65% increase in its total adjusted tax levy over the FY04-FY13 period. After the same adjustment for inflation, average real taxes are up over 35% instead of 1%. I don’t have to remind anyone that this relentless growth in spending at a rate much higher than inflation (the proposed budget for FY14 would raise taxes 6.4%, more than three times the current inflation rate), comes at a time when everyone is still hurting from the Great Recession, and at a time when Fairfield is at a severe competitive disadvantage in its ability to attract and retain residents who are willing to pay for services they do not use when they can live in towns with equal or better services, like Westport, Darien and Greenwich, at discounts in their property taxes of 23%, 46% and 56%, respectively, or move out of Fairfield County and keep even more of their income. Fairfield has a very serious Affordability problem.

Pequot:

In 1980 Fairfield's population was 58,000...my property taxes have tripled since 2000!

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