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City’s priority: A steady tax load

April 21, 2011 – Marlborough officials say they aren’t interested in lofty rhetoric or vague notions of improvement as the city develops a new economic development master plan. Rather, their goal is very specific: to increase nonresidential property assessments by $1.4 billion in the next 10 years.

That’s what officials calculate it will take to stabilize the city’s residential property taxes.

“What you’re trying to do is maintain a steady tax burden on people,’’ said Arthur Bergeron, chairman of the Marlborough Economic Development Corporation, a public-private collaboration aimed at encouraging commercial operations to set up shop in the city. “If we can keep the rate steady over time, then I think we’ve made ourselves a really attractive community.’’

The more commerce a community has, the smaller share its residents need to pay for municipal operations, especially in communities like Marlborough that have split tax rates. Nonresidential properties are taxed at nearly double the rate of residences in Marlborough. And businesses are seen as putting less stress on city services because they don’t add children to the school system.

City officials are gathering input from residents, businesses, and other interest groups on what to include in the plan. Focus groups with various constituencies were held last week, and a larger public forum will be held on May 21. Also, officials will conduct a survey this spring.

“It’s generally to get a sense of what people are thinking about living in Marlborough, raising a family in Marlborough, owning and running a business in Marlborough,’’ said George Ciccone, executive director of the nonprofit development corporation. “Anybody who wants to have input, we want them to participate.’’

“One of the most important things that could come out of this plan would be a consensus,’’ Bergeron said. “We want to have a plan that the average Marlborough citizen says, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ ’’

He added: “We don’t want a place where you have a great tax rate but it’s crummy’’ to live there.

Richard Tomanek, general manager at the Embassy Suites hotel in Marlborough, participated in a focus group and said the event featured “lively discussion.’’

Tomanek also praised the specific focus of the master plan process, saying it isn’t “pie in the sky.’’

“That $1.4 billion is a daunting number in this economy,’’ Tomanek said, “but it’s really pointed at a number and the mission to increase revenues.’’

Ciccone, the economic development director, said officials will try to determine the current state of Marlborough’s economy, draft a vision for the city’s economic future, and come up with a plan for reaching its goals.

Officials will use such data as housing starts and permits for commercial projects to assess the city’s economic condition, he said.

Bergeron said the city will likely have to rethink its zoning bylaws in order to expand its commercial tax base.

“If you tried to find $1.4 billion in new value, you could not find it in Marlborough,’’ Bergeron said. “The current zoning would not sustain that kind of new development.’’

Arthur Vigeant, the City Council president, acknowledged that some of Marlborough’s zoning is “outdated,’’ and said officials want to change that through the master plan rather than “on a piecemeal basis.’’

Bergeron said that while Marlborough has traditionally enjoyed a large commercial property tax base, and has not had to resort to large residential tax increases during the down economy, officials aren’t taking anything for granted.

“I think they’re aware that over the next number of years, the growth that has automatically happened here may not be happening,’’ Bergeron said. “We’re trying to position ourselves to have a plan.’’

This story originally appeared here