Editor’s note: This is the third in an ongoing series exploring proposed changes to the town’s charter that will appear on November’s ballot. As an aid to voters, the New Canaan News will provide a series of in-depth stories breaking down each of the items that will appear on the ballot.
Past stories in the series: “The ballot measures,” “A question of numbers.”
NEW CANAAN — Should a person who does not pay real estate taxes in town be eligible for appointment to the Board of the Finance?
That’s the second of five questions voters will be asked to weigh in on this November, when suggested changes to the Town Charter by the Charter Revision Commission will appear on the general election ballot.
“We had an instance very recently with Jim Kucharczyk, who is now on the Town Council,” Bill Walbert, Town Council chairman, explained. In the past, Kucharczyk had been a homeowner in New Canaan, but was renting at the time of his appointment to the Board of Finance and learned of the real estate taxpayer rule after the fact. In July 2015 he resigned his position, but joined the Town Council in November of that same year.
“Jim is very much a part of New Canaan, so that rule didn’t make much sense to us,” Charter Revision Commission Chair David Hunt said. According to Hunt, that was one of several reasons the commission decided to suggest a change.
No other board or committee in New Canaan has the same standards, Hunt noted. He said the commission felt that renters, too, were paying taxes baked into their rent, even if indirectly. Additionally, a growing number of houses in New Canaan are not listed under a person’s name, but instead listed as an LLC, in which case the legal entity is the taxpayer and not the individual who created it, Hunt said.
“The real issue is whether you’re reasonably dedicated to the town of New Canaan,” Hunt said. “You could be a renter of long standing who intends to be here for a long time or you could not be. We think that the people making appointments will be able to judge.” Hunt added that most boards of finance in the state are elected, not appointed, so this particular rule did not lend itself to comparison between towns.
According to Walbert, the trend in town toward renting is one worth considering. One current proposal, for example, to rebuild on the spot of the existing Merritt Apartments, could add more than 80 units intended for empty-nesters looking to downsize.
“The renting mentality is becoming more and more part of the fabric of American life. I don’t know where that trend will go or not go. Interest rates are at all-time record lows so if people aren’t buying houses now when will they?” Walbert said.
That could either signal a need for more leniency in the charter to account for potentially invaluable volunteers that are non-homeowners. It could, on the other hand, signal a need to ensure that those in town government are well-versed in local politics and sufficiently familiar with the town they’re serving.
“The rule seems somewhat prohibitive. Nevertheless, I can see why, if you’re going to have people make policy decisions, you need to make sure they’re affected by them in the same way as everyone else in town,” Gary Rose, chair of the Department of Government, Politics and Global Studies at Sacred Heart University, said.
First Selectman and Board of Finance Chair Rob Mallozzi, however, feels that because of the thoroughness of the vetting process before a board member can be appointed, whether or not a candidate pays real estate taxes is a non-issue.
“The Board of Selectmen in its entirety appoints members to the Board of Finance. We take a long time reviewing folks that are potentially going to be members. And because it’s an appointed board we can eliminate folks that don’t have some degree of standing in town over some period of time. Then the Town Council has to confirm our appointments, so that’s another check and balance,” Mallozzi said.
Still, the question left the Town Council mostly divided.
“If you’re against it, it’s because you’re concerned that the person isn’t paying property taxes and doesn’t have the same skin in the game. If you’re for it, it’s because you believe if a person is bothering to put themselves out there, they of course feel our joy and pain and will do just as good a job,” Walbert said.