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On taxes, it’s needs vs. squeeze

BOSTON GLOBE – When it comes to property taxes, Christopher Kirk sometimes feels like he’s battling the tide.

“We had the tax increase for the library. Now they want a multimillion-dollar tax increase for the schools,” said Kirk, a 60-year-old retiree who is chairman of Shrewsbury for Responsible Taxation, a group that wants to curb municipal spending. “They don’t realize that people who are retirees are on fixed incomes. Every time taxes go up, their standard of living goes down.”

The Shrewsbury school district’s superintendent, Joseph Sawyer, said he understands the reluctance of Kirk and other residents to pay higher property taxes.

But, with the interests of the community’s children in mind, Sawyer said, he also felt obligated to propose increasing the school district’s budget by $7.8 million, or 15 percent, for next fiscal year.

“The cost of providing an appropriate public education has increased considerably due to many factors, including mandates such as special education,” said Sawyer. “In Shrewsbury, as state aid for education has flattened, available local revenue has not been sufficient to close the gap.”

The debate is common throughout Boston’s western suburbs. For years, as the region has grown in population and economic heft, longtime homeowners have felt squeezed by rising property taxes that are often due to affluent newcomers voting in favor of Proposition 2½ overrides, officials said.

A survey of 52 communities between Boston and Worcester found that the average property tax bill for single-family homes increased by roughly 50 percent over the last 10 years, according to the state’s Department of Revenue.

In 2004, the average annual bill for homeowners in the region was around $5,300; this year, it’s $8,000.

In Weston, where taxes on single-family homes have increased by nearly 59 percent in the past decade to become the highest average in the region, Board of Selectmen chairman Edward Coburn said he was concerned that the elders who built the community are being forced to question whether they should move somewhere cheaper.

“People on fixed incomes may be living in a house they bought 50 years ago for $18,000, and it’s now valued at $1.9 million or more,” he said. “Their annual property taxes may exceed what they paid for it 50 years ago. That’s a real concern.”

Coburn also noted that while Weston’s current average tax bill of $17,800 reflects the levies on large new homes that have been built in recent years, owners of more modest houses can’t escape rising costs. “Your valuation is going to be driven up just by being in that neighborhood,” he said.

Lexington Town Manager Carl Valente said that in his community, builders have torn down about 100 modest houses and built larger homes in their place every year since 2005, when he started his job. Those “tear downs” have helped increase Lexington’s average single-family tax bill by 79 percent, to almost $11,500.

Big new homes put upward pressure on market values, but they don’t necessarily cause spikes in tax bills for residents who remain in smaller homes, said Valente. The real driver behind Lexington’s ballooning tax bills are the children who come with the new houses, he said.

Since 2005, about 400 additional students have entered the Lexington school system, a 6 percent increase in the district’s total population, Valente said, at an annual cost of around $11,000 per student. As the student population has grown, Lexington residents have repeatedly approved new school projects, said Valente.

In the past 10 years, Lexington voters have renovated or replaced the town’s high school, two middle schools, and five elementary schools. The town recently submitted a proposal to the Massachusetts School Building Authority to determine whether to replace or renovate the Maria Hastings Elementary School, too.

“As people have come to Lexington because we have an excellent school system, it has also put enormous pressure on our budget,” Valente said.

Cities and towns that experienced the least precipitous increases in their taxes in the past decade tended to be farther from Boston, haven’t experienced waves of knock downs and new building, and have had more open land for commercial developments. Officials in those communities also said they have been conservative in their budgeting.

“We’ve held our spending in check,” said Marlborough Mayor Arthur Vigeant. “We’ve been pretty frugal out here for a number of years.”

Taxes on single-family homes in Marlborough have increased by almost 38 percent since 2004, to an average of around $4,650 this year, one of the lowest tax burdens in the region.

But Marlborough has a split property tax system, and levies residential properties at $16.11 per $1,000 valuation and commercial and industrial properties at $28.22 per $1,000. The arrangement puts a larger share of the total municipal tax levy on commercial properties, and helps reduce residential tax bills.

“We’re very fortunate,” said Vigeant. “We have substantial new growth with our office park.”

Marlborough does have to pay for infrastructure, of course. The city is completing $110 million in repairs on two water treatment plants. In November, the City Council approved $9.5 million in borrowing for a new senior center and improvements to Ward Park, and school officials are studying the need for a new elementary school, said Vigeant.

To generate money for those projects, Vigeant wants more business to set up shop in the city. Using funding of around $450,000 a year earmarked from a local hotel tax instituted in 2010, a nonprofit public-private partnership is spearheading those efforts.

“The goal of the Marlborough Economic Development Corporation is to stabilize the residential tax rate and reduce the commercial rate by increasing the pie down in the office park,” said Vigeant. “The costs of services are not going to go down. We need to find additional revenues.”

Shrewsbury residents have also experienced relatively small tax increases in the past decade. On average, they now pay almost $4,500 a year, or 38 percent more than 10 years ago.

But that frugality has taken a toll, said Sawyer, the school district’s top official. For last fiscal year, Shrewsbury cut 32 school positions, including 16 teachers, he said. The town is in the top 20 percent of per capita income in the state, but is among the bottom 10 percent in terms of spending per student, he added.

“In recent years Shrewsbury schools have experienced cuts to personnel and programming that are compromising the quality of education,” he said.

On Wednesday, the town’s School Committee is scheduled to decide whether to ask for a Proposition 2½ override to support a larger budget for the schools, based on Sawyer’s recommended 15 percent increase or another number.

Shrewsbury for Responsible Taxation members said they intend to lobby hard against another tax increase. Last year, voters approved a $13.6 million debt exclusion for a new library. At least that spending would result in a new building, said group member Fritz Bauer, a retired engineer, and the tax increase would end once the construction bill is paid off. He couldn’t sanction higher taxes for school operations.

“We all have to tighten our belts. We have to live within our means. Saying the kids will suffer — the kids will not suffer,” said Bauer.

“If we give them 15 percent next year, what happens the year after that?”

This article by John Dyer originally appeared here.