If horses could talk, they might say, "whoa there" to the Connecticut legislature. Flicka may be your friend, but to the state the four-legged creature is a source of revenue for cities and towns.
There is a little-known statute that mandates horse owners to register animals valued at more than $1,000 with their local tax assessor's office. According to Connecticut law, horses are supposed to be taxed as personal property at their declared value multiplied by the mill rate for the town in which they reside.
For example, a horse with a declared value of $10,000 in Litchfield, which has a current tax rate of 25.41, would lead to a bill of $254.
But according to veterinarian Stewart "Chip" Beckett III, president of the Connecticut Horse Council, Inc., "Few non-business owners know about the law or if they are aware of it, they ignore it."
"Many equestrians just take the [$1,000] exemption and stick their head in the sand to have it blow over, but if the tax assessor … decides [the horse] is worth $50,000 and you did not file, you are supposed to pay the tax and penalties." Dr. Beckett noted that other livestock in the state, as well as domestic pets, are not subject to similar taxation. "In the lovely state of Connecticut," he commented wryly, "horses are the only living being[s] that are taxed as personal property."
The Glastonbury-based veterinarian said that horses are integral to the state's bucolic image. "If we are going to have a real Connecticut with stone walls and pasture," then we need to have an animal-related industry.
And with the state's dairy business in decline, Dr. Beckett believes that horses can fill the void left by cows. He said that Connecticut and New Jersey are thought to be the states with the most horses per capita, with Connecticut's equine population numbering around 50,000.
Jenifer Nadeau, a veterinarian, member of the Connecticut Horse Council and an equine extension specialist with the University of Connecticut's Department of Animal Science, said that she has repeatedly heard reference made to the 50,000 number, but she does not know the source of the figure.
However, Dr. Nadeau said that the departments of Animal Science and Agricultural and Resource Economics at UConn are almost ready to unveil the results of a statewide survey of horse owners and horse-related businesses in order to determine the broad characteristics of Connecticut's horse industry, including the number of equines residing here.
Calling the personal property tax on horses a "real hornet's nest for equine owners," Dr. Beckett said that the tax, which has been on the books for years, is an issue that the Connecticut Horse Council would like to tackle.
The Connecticut Horse Council is an affiliate of the American Horse Council, an organization that, among other things, monitors federal legislation that affects equine owners, such as tax-related issues.
"It's been one of our big topics in the past few years," Dr. Beckett said, explaining that the difficulty has been in getting a legislator to pay proper attention to the problem of taxing horses as personal property. "There was a bill to allow towns not to tax that did not get a lot of people to testify at the public hearing," he said.
Dr. Beckett believes that the legislature's perception is that "it's only rich white girls who ride horses." He said that "no one talks about the factory worker who has a trail horse."
State Sen. Andrew Roraback, (R-Goshen) does not know the genesis of the statute that authorizes taxing horses as personal property. In fact, he was unaware of its existence until it was brought to his attention.
The senator commented that he has seen some strange statutes on the books, but he acknowledged that this particular one is among the more arcane.
"Sometimes legislators act emotionally," is one explanation he put forward as a possibility for the legislation being drafted in the first place. As for why it continues to exist, he said, "I can't offer any cogent rationale. … " He did note that, in 1987, an amendment was introduced that exempted a horse from the tax if its owner used it exclusively for farming.
The Connecticut Horse Council conducted a study in 1999, according to Dr. Beckett, that showed $171,000 in taxes on horses was collected from the 169 municipalities in the state.
"The tax assessors are desperate for every cent they can charge, so it gets worse with time," he said, noting that the towns of Tolland and Easton have been particularly aggressive about pursuing the tax.
Barbara Johnson, assessor for the town of Washington, said that the horse tax "is hardly a big part of our revenue … it's kind of limited."
Acknowledging that Washington has some farms with pricey horses, she said that if she knows of expensive horses in the area, she wants to be certain that their owners register the animals with the town and pay the appropriate taxes. However, she said that "one doesn't have time to drive around the countryside looking for horses."
Litchfield's tax assessor, Harold Ducey, agreed. "There is only so much you can do, there are only so many hours in the day." He wistfully pointed out that some states have even gone so far as to do away with personal property taxes altogether, using the rationale that it is more cost effective to have assessors working on bigger issues instead of chasing down every item of personal property that people are legally required to report.
When asked if he felt that a law taxing horses as personal property, but not cats or dogs, was discriminatory, Mr. Ducey replied, "Do you want to track down every cat and dog?" He followed up by pointing out that as a tax assessor it is not his job to make the laws, but to help enforce them.
Explaining that the equine property tax is based on the honor system, Mr. Ducey said, "People [in Litchfield] know that it's required. … I don't think there are that many horses in town we don't have an assessment on."
Trying to obtain an exact amount from Ms. Johnson and Mr. Ducey for revenue their towns received last year from the horse tax proved unsuccessful.
However, Mr. Ducey explained that 90 percent of Litchfield's tax base is generated from real estate, 5 to 7 percent comes from motor vehicles, and the remaining amount of the town's tax revenue-about $5 million-is primarily earned from personal property taxes on equipment such as computers associated with small businesses and home offices. He said that the $5 million is spread over approximately 800 accounts, with only a "couple of dozen" responsible for generating the lion's share of the $5 million.
But ascertaining the value of a horse in the first place, according to Dr. Beckett, presents a big problem. Ms. Johnson and Mr. Ducey both agreed.
"That's one of the biggest problems," acknowledged Mr. Ducey. He said that he is in no position to dispute the value of someone's horse.
These days, Ms. Johnson depends on horse owners to provide the town of Washington with an honest valuation of their animals. "Years ago," she said, "I would find out the value of horse meat, figure out what a horse ought to weigh and I would base the value on that."
The assessor said that some owners were appalled because they said they would never dream of selling their horses for meat. However, Ms. Johnson said that they were missing the real point behind her calculations.