Framingham selectmen OK large tax rate hike December 20, 2011
Danielle Ameden 508-626-4416 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- Selectmen last night reluctantly adopted a new tax rate that will sock the average homeowner with a property tax bill increase of more than $500.

Board members said the data they used to make their decision in a 5-0 vote, based on Chief Assessor Dan Dargon's recommendation, is "flabbergasting."

Dargon said the valuation process this year reflects that single-family homes in town sold for more than their assessed value in calendar year 2010, driving up home values townwide.

"I don't understand that at all," said Selectman Charlie Sisitsky, who said the value of his Eaton Road home rose by 7.4 percent based on that scenario. "People are going to get killed with a tax increase this year."

The average single-family home value is now $340,847, up from $324,214, according to Dargon's numbers.

The fiscal 2012 tax bill for that home will be $5,760, a $563 increase from the current year, based on a new residential tax rate of $16.90 per $1,000 in assessed value. The current rate is $16.03.

Selectmen adopted a split rate that shifts a greater burden to commercial and industrial taxpayers.

Businesses will pay $37.96 next fiscal year, per $1,000 in assessed value, a slight increase from $37.11.

Selectmen worried about the message the split rate sends to businesses, including those thinking of relocating to Framingham, when, for instance, the Marlborough commercial and industrial rate is slightly more than $29 per $1,000.

"It puts us at clearly a disadvantage," Selectman Dennis Giombetti said.

"I do think from a commercial perspective Framingham has lost its game," board Chairman Jason Smith said.

While the residential rate is going up sharply, selectmen compared the $16.90 figure to neighboring towns, including Natick's $13.91 and Marlborough's $14.80.

Framingham provides "a heck of a lot more services" and "more value," Sisitsky said.

Still, Smith called the increase "astronomical."

Smith said he couldn't understand Dargon's explanation about homes selling last year for more than their appraised value. He said he bought his home two years ago.

"If I put my home back on the market now I'm going to lose my shirt," Smith said.

Giombetti said he couldn't grasp why home values rose 3.3 percent in Framingham but actually fell 1.73 percent in Marlborough and 1.46 percent in Natick.

Fellow board member Laurie Lee said the assessments and tax rate going up unfortunately present a "double whammy" to single-family homeowners."We're caught between a rock and a hard place," Sisitsky said of the need to raise enough taxes to pay for the $217 million budget Town Meeting approved in May.

"Shame on Town Meeting members for increasing our taxes every year," said Peter Pleshaw, who represents Precinct 11.

The town's overall value is up just under 1 percent, according to Dargon's presentation.

While residential values are up by an average of 3.3 percent, commercial property values fell by 7.4 percent, or $97 million while the industrial category was basically flat.

Framingham taxpayers question property tax bills January 4, 2012
Danielle Ameden 508-626-4416 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- Taxpayers are baffled by high new property tax bills and doubt the town's tax-setting process, especially since a local shopping plaza sold for $13 million more than its assessed value.

The town mailed out tax bills on Friday reflecting the new tax rate selectmen set last month. It socks the average homeowner with an 11 percent, or $563, property tax increase.

"I know a couple of older people that are wanting to move out of Framingham or at least sell their house because they can't afford their taxes any more," said Kathy Foran of Realty Executives, who lives and works in town. "It's just too bad. I think we're probably going to see more of that."

The town is hitting homeowners with what Foran called a "double whammy" of higher taxes and home assessments.

"They're saying the values are up and I don't see that," she said. "I don't see that at all."

Taxpayers were surprised to learn, meanwhile, that the Old Connecticut Path Marketplace has sold for $23.2 million, when the town assessed it at only $9.9 million.

"Obviously it looks like a problem," said Joel Winett, a Town Meeting member from Precinct 7. "I'm not the only one that's observed that."

"I have to admit, it is quite unusual where someone pays more than twice what the assessed value is," said Jim Gordon, president of Gordon Real Estate in Framingham.

Chief Assessor Dan Dargon referred calls yesterdayon the Old Connecticut Path property and the tax-setting process to the selectmen's office.

According to a Board of Assessors presentation, commercial property values are based on "income and potential income" as opposed to homes, which are valuated based on neighborhood sale prices.

Winett said the Old Connecticut Path plaza's sale raises questions about how valuable property in town is assessed.

"We have a broken system that's not very transparent," Winett said.

Based on Dargon's recommendation, selectmen on Dec. 19 set a split rate that shifts the maximum burden allowed for commercial taxpayers. The new rates are $16.94 per $1,000 in assessed value for homeowners, and $38.05 per $1,000 in value for commercial and industrial property owners.

"One of the reasons that the taxes went up for residents is because the commercial assessments went down," Winett said. "When the commercial assessments go down, the total levy must be the same. That means the residential portion of the levy must go up."

In a letter to taxpayers, Interim Town Manager Valerie Mulvey explained that the town's commercial sector value shrunk by more than $117 million. Last fiscal year, the commercial sector represented 24.5 percent of the town's overall value but paid 42 percent of total tax revenue because of the shift. The value has fallen from 24.5 to 22.7 percent.

If the town had a single tax rate, everyone would pay $21.74, raising the average single-family taxpayer bill by over $1,600, Mulvey wrote.

But burdening commercial taxpayers comes at a price.

Mal Duane, a real estate agent, owns a home on Salem End Road and a commercial building on Library Street.

"My commercial real estate tax for owning commercial property in this town (is) approaching almost tripling in seven years and obviously the property is worth significantly less than what I paid in 2004," Duane said.

"As a homeowner and a business owner in town, I'm deeply concerned. I think the town needs to manage its money better," she said. "They make it impossible for the small-business owner. My building doesn't even carry itself because of the taxes. They make it impossible. I don't know what the solution is."

Taxpayers can apply to the Board of Assessors for an abatement until Feb. 1, the same day third-quarter taxes are due. Many people are expected to apply.

Winett said he plans to ask selectmen next week to adopt a residential tax exemption that would cut eligible homeowners a break. He suggests 5 percent.

"It is ridiculous, I think, for the assessments to go up in this market where it's down," said Foran. "It's a down market. I hate to say it, but I don't even think we're done yet."

Gordon said the job market is closely tied to tax revenue.

"When the unemployment rate is higher, less companies need buildings to work in. They need less space, there's less demand," he said. "That drops property values. Furthermore, there's less income, there's less money out there, there's less tax revenue."

Framingham residents demand answers about taxes January 11, 2012
Danielle Ameden 508-626-4416 Metrowest Daily News
Angry taxpayers packed the Board of Selectmen's meeting room last night, saying they can't afford their high property tax bills and demanding answers.

Residents said they want the town to cut spending to bring down taxes, and suggested an underride ballot question.

"Would you put a rollback initiative to the vote of the people of this town?" Jim Magner asked selectmen, taking a moment to pause. "The silence is deafening."

Residents said new property valuations are out of whack and their higher tax bills threaten to drive them out of their homes.

"Right now a lot of us are in very desperate situations," said Town Meeting member George Lewis, who said he was speaking as a senior and taxpayer. He said his taxes are up 14 percent and he has to borrow money to pay his bills.

Before residents got a chance to speak, Town Counsel Chris Petrini said the community may not like the new tax rate, which raises the average homeowner's tax bill by $576, but it's "very difficult if not impossible" to change it.

Since the state Department of Revenue has set the fiscal 2012 tax rate and certified the town's property revaluation, Petrini said the town can really only look forward.

Selectmen and finance officials encouraged homeowners to apply for abatements.

Chief Assessor Dan Dargon said his staff will hold workshops on Thursday, Jan. 19 and Jan. 26, from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the Memorial Building to assist taxpayers in filing paperwork to challenge the new assessed values of their homes.

Selectmen took several votes, including asking Dargon and Chief Financial Officer Mary Ellen Kelley to look at how the town can help senior citizens.

Board Chairman Jason Smith also asked for information on calling a special Town Meeting so voters could provide that extra relief.

As a policy decision, Petrini said selectmen could look later this year at adopting a residential exemption for single-family homes to give those taxpayers a break of up to 20 percent of their bills. If selectmen adopt the tool, it would apply to next year's tax bills.

Tempers and the temperature in the crowded Blumer Community Room apparently rose as Kelley and Dargon went over the tax-setting process and the reasons why residential tax bills are going up so drastically — largely because the commercial tax base is shrinking.

Town Meeting member Joel Winett said people "don't care what the process was," they care that their tax bills are high.

"We need something that the residents can do," he said.

Abatement applications are due in the assessor's office by 5 p.m. on Feb. 1.

Selectmen said they were, as board member Ginger Esty put it, "taken by surprise" by the need to raise taxes so dramatically.

In terms of spending less, Selectman Charlie Sisitsky urged Town Meeting members to seriously consider tightening the town's purse strings.

He said he is recommending town leaders craft "at least two budgets" for next fiscal year — one with a standard 2 1/2 percent budget increase and the other with an increase that is around 1 percent.

"You'd be very surprised how much money we're going to have to cut" straight out of the School Department, Public Works, police and fire budgets, he said.

The new residential tax rate of $16.94 per $1,000 of assessed value, up from $16.03, is four cents higher than what selectmen expected when they held the annual tax classification hearing on Dec. 19.

The large hike is in spite of selectmen voting to shift the tax burden onto commercial taxpayers by a factor of 1.75 – the maximum amount allowed by state law.

The commercial, industrial and personal property rate rose from $37.11 to $38.05.

Outrage over taxes has Framingham scrambling January 12, 2012
Danielle Ameden 508-626-4416 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM --An outcry from residents has the town scrambling to help them afford soaring property taxes, while at the same time officials are looking into possibly unfair assessments.

Outrage and distrust ruled the night at town hall Tuesday as residents confronted selectmen about high tax bills, which are up 11 percent on average. Taxpayers packed the Blumer Community Room and stayed until midnight, taking turns at the lectern to give selectmen a piece of their mind.

David Levin, who came armed with property valuation research, said the town’s tax-setting process is flawed.

“I’m angry, I’m disturbed, I’m frustrated, and something has to be done to fix it,” he said. “It’s broken. The wheels have fallen off the wagon.”

The idea that the town significantly undervalues commercial property was a theme.

Residents cited examples that appear nonsensical — including how the Old Connecticut Path Marketplace sold for $23.2 million when the town assessed it at $9.9 million.

Chief Assessor Dan Dargon offered an explanation — that residents didn’t buy — that the sale price isn’t considered a fair market value and the trust paid so much because of its “guaranteed income stream.”

“A fair market value is what someone is willing to pay,” homeowner Leo Laskin said Tuesday. He received applause from the crowd when he told selectmen the plaza should be assessed for its selling price.

“Agree!” people yelled out.

“There’s a lot of people, me included, that aren’t comfortable with the commercial values,” selectmen Vice Chairman Charlie Sisitsky said yesterday.

Chief Financial Officer Mary Ellen Kelley said shrinking commercial values caused the tax burden this fiscal year to swing to homeowners, despite the fact selectmen voted to shift the levy onto businesses as much as possible.

Residential taxes are increasing $576 on average with the new split tax rate because commercial values are down and home values are up.

Sisitsky said he wants the town to look at alternatives to the income-based method it uses to assess commercial property per state Department of Revenue guidelines.

He also suggested that the town look into hiring an outside firm to set those assessments.

“We need to change things for next year,” Laskin said.

The young homeowner from Blackberry Lane said his taxes have gone up $1,500 in two years, and he blames it on the town’s spending and low-balled commercial values.

“We could lower everybody’s taxes — both commercial and residential — just by fixing the assessed value of commercial properties,” Laskin said yesterday.

Echoing that concern, Selectman Ginger Esty pointed to a strip of undeveloped land at 1018 Old Connecticut Path with two cell tower poles, whose owner, she said, should be paying higher taxes.

She said it’s “the crowning example, in my mind, of how things aren’t quite fair.”

Dargon said people should let his office know of possible discrepancies.

“You’re not ratting out your neighbor if it’s unfair,” he said.

Selectman Laurie Lee said it is crucial that her board dust off and adopt the proposed Payment In Lieu Of Taxes policy to have tax-exempt organizations start contributing to the town coffers.

“I know it’s not a perfect policy,” she said. “I know there’s questions about how much you can actually collect.”

In the meantime, the town is encouraging taxpayers to apply to the Board of Assessors for abatements and exemptions.

The Assessors Department will hold workshops on Jan. 19 and Jan. 26 with drop-in hours from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Taxpayers can file paperwork to challenge the town’s assessed values of their homes.

The deadline to file for an abatement is Feb. 1 at 5 p.m.

A clause exemption seminar is planned for Feb. 9 from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. so seniors, veterans and handicapped residents can get help applying for tax relief.

The deadline for filing for an exemption is March 1.

Selectmen said they will also consider calling a special Town Meeting so voters could possibly provide extra relief for seniors by increasing the $500 maximum exemption or loosening eligibility requirements.

Homeowners can also defer their tax payments and pay them back later with interest.

Selectmen said they want to receive earlier notice about projected tax increases, and for Town Meeting to also get a heads-up so it can make more informed budgetary decisions.

Selectmen enacted a policy Tuesday to start the annual tax rate discussion at their first meeting in December.

Selectmen said they were blindsided by the numbers at last month’s tax classification hearing on Dec. 19.

“We did not realize that it was going to be that much of an increase,” board member Dennis Giombetti said.

The new residential tax rate is $16.94 per $1,000 of assessed value, up from $16.03.

The commercial, industrial and personal property rate rose from $37.11 to $38.05.

Sage Lane resident Brian Pollock said he was “very upset” when he got his tax bill. He implored the board to do its part to ensure a zero-based budget next fiscal year.

“People are fed up with the taxes,” he told selectmen Tuesday. “You can’t just continue to rubber-stamp what the departments heads are looking for.”

Selectmen reminded residents that Town Meeting controls the town’s spending.

“I don’t just rubber-stamp everything,” Town Meeting member Kathie McCarthy said. “We are guided in a certain way.”

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