38 min read

A Through the Cycle Geo-Spatial Analysis of CT Town Finances

Introduction

In an earlier post, Reviewing Fairfield County Municipal Fiscal Indicators Since 2001, we used 17 years of individual Town Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFR) aggregated in Connecticut’s Municipal Fiscal Indicator’s to compare 15 Fairfield County towns. The challenge was that the graphs became crowded even with that small number of towns. In this analysis, we will expand our look at the similar variables over all 169 Connecticut towns using Geo-spatial mapping.

We find a few surprising trends:

  • Education expenses have risen rapidly and broadly, but declining school age populations may be pushing towards unsutainable levels in some towns
  • Three of Connecticut’s four largest cities (other than Stamford) show ongoing struggles with employment, mill rates, debt levels and credit ratings in contrast to the national trend for cities to generate employment and thrive
  • There has been a broad based capital spending boom, but some towns stand out above all others for spending

The map in Figure 1 is a snapshot of 2017 financial data for each town in CT with color scaled by population. The map shows the largest town populations along Metronorth and the I-95 Corridor through New Haven, and then North to Hartford along I-91 in the central part of the state. It is possible click to see the town names along with per cap data on taxes, spending, state transfers, equalized grand lists, mill rates, debt and capital investment. School spending makes up about 60% of town spending on average (although ranging widely between 40-80%). Spending per student and students per population are shown. Unemployment, population density and Moody’s ratings are also shown. The point in time in Figure 1 is well into the recovery, but below we will “animate” by year to give a feel for changes through the cycle.

Figure 1: Connecticut Towns Names and Attributes by Population in 2016

The Western and Southern Parts of State Led Local Real Estate Tax Increases

In a later post, we will do a similar analysis based on income and income taxes for the towns, but higher local taxes (mostly real estate) as shown in Figure 2 probably couldn’t be sustained without higher earnings. We did note in Analysis of Connecticut Tax Load by Income Bracket and Type that incomes of two middle brackets have appeared to trail rising tax rates since 2009. Back in 2001, most towns collected taxes less than $2,000 annually, but by 2017, only a handful were still in that range (mostly in the Eastern part of the state). Both the growth trajectory and absolute level of taxes seems to be higher in West. As we will see below, education spending has grown rapidly in that region, and this is the likely driver of higher taxes.

Taxes are Higher In Western Connecticut to Pay for Higher Education Spending

Figure 2: Taxes are Higher In Western Connecticut to Pay for Higher Education Spending

Education Costs Mostly Rising in Tandem with Some Towns Now Above $30,000 Per Student

Figure 3 shows the rapid growth in spending per student across the state. While the Northwest started and remained highest (followed by the Southwest), the overall picture is of a rapid and fairly equal rise in spending across the state. The rise in the North West is likely the result of declining student age population. Given the much higher living costs in Fairfield County, it is somewhat surprising that many towns have costs within the range of others with much less expensive real estate to the North and East. As noted in Reviewing Fairfield County Municipal Fiscal Indicators Since 2001, some towns in Northeastern Fairfield County are also seeing declining student age population pressuring costs.

Education Cost Per Student Have Grown Rapidly in Western Connecticut

Figure 3: Education Cost Per Student Have Grown Rapidly in Western Connecticut