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A Delicate Balance For A First Ring Suburb

A Delicate Balance For A First Ring Suburb

New Haven Independent, June 6, 2019

By CCM Staff

Though the two cities split well over two hundred years ago, Hamden and New Haven share a special relationship as Curt Leng discussed on this week’s Municipal Voice, brought to you by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

There are plusses and minuses to being a first ring suburb like Hamden. As Leng told us, “we’re close enough to New Haven to enjoy the arts and the culture, [and we’re] just a few miles away to the forest.”

That attracts a good many people, what Leng called a “microcosm of the state.” Interestingly, despite being one of the few cities that has grown, Leng argues that there’s a small sense of community, saying “it’s amazing how many people know each other personally. Like the seven degrees of Kevin Bacon, we have the three degrees of Hamden.”

But there’s also an “imaginary line” that separates Hamden from the city, one that has sparked controversy in recent months, including a police shooting that crossed from Hamden into New Haven.

Saying that the two need to “get to know each other better as neighbors,” Leng worked with New Haven to be a part of meetings that he felt were important to Hamden’s residents. “The better the city does, the better we do. We live and die together.” 

Tax base critical back to top

Like New Haven, Hamden has a property tax base that is mostly private residential because of the amount of untaxable property in the cities. Larger institutions like Yale and Quinnipiac Universities are tax exempt, and while they are part of the Payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program, there is a need for greater revenue diversification.

One such suggestion is a municipal fee for such tax-exempt properties, where you only charge them for services like police and fire.

Because of PILOT, municipalities like Hamden are balancing their mill rate on the edge of a knife. They would like to continue to add more services, without raising the mill rate, which is already one of the highest in the state.

Leng recommended a budget, “begrudgingly,” with a tax increase, but vetoed the Legislative Town Council’s approved budget because they had gone over the 50-mill line. By Leng’s estimation, taking care of necessities, the tax rate began to “creep up,” and 50 mills was a line he did not want to cross.

“You can only tax so much,” he said.

The mayor mentioned that the Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) grant, if had been fully funded, would have kept the mill rate “five or six mills lower,” adding that the “pension would be fully funded,” as well.

But there was hope in his voice when discussing the state’s budget, as the legislative session ends. He noted that Hamden had done well, that the ECS grant and Alliance District money (which is part of ECS) remained flat over two administrations, and that this current government is actually bringing “concept idea to law.”

 “People come to Hamden because they recognize the value,” but that value is a delicate balance of taxes, regionalism, revenue diversification, help from the state, and so much more. There is a “precipice” that Leng feels Hamden cannot go over.