Every tax is a pay cut.  Every tax cut is a pay raise.
Citizens for Limited Taxation

The beast of burden Friday, June 17, 2005
Liz Mineo Metrowest Daily News
From the town manager to selectmen to the high school's student body president, everybody agrees that the main challenge facing Framingham in the coming fiscal year is its finances.

With town meeting starting its debate about capital budget this past week, several community leaders expressed concerns about the town's lack of revenues, decreasing state aid and the increasing burden on residential taxpayers to balance the budget.

But those concerns are not new, they said, and the town is actually doing better than what many people think.

"The sky isn't falling," said Jeanne Bullock, Chairwoman of the Capital Budget Committee.  "Every year, I hear people say 'It's a crisis,' but every year, we do the budget and we get through the year.  In 2003, everybody thought everything was falling apart, and yet we ended up with extra money."

Town Manager George King, who recommended an overall budget of about $175 million for fiscal year 2006, shares the sentiment.

To continue capital budget projects and maintain the town's level of operation is an ongoing struggle, he said, but this year is no different from other fiscal years.

"We're actually doing better than other towns," said King.  "We were one of the few towns that put together a budget without major problems."

This year, much of the discussion has focused on how the town deals with tax-exempt property and how property taxes end up bearing most of the load.  Community leaders interviewed for this report agree that the town should do more to increase its tax base and lessen the burden on property taxpayers.

The average single-family tax bill in Framingham this year is $4,125, compared with $3,205 in 2000, and many homeowners feel they shoulder more of the burden for local services.

Many are frustrated at several local social service agencies, which, they said, are ducking property taxes, despite the fact that the town itself and the state own almost 60 percent of all the tax-exempt property in Framingham.

A group of neighbors have formed Stop Tax Exempt Private Property Sprawl to block the South Middlesex Opportunity Council's plan to buy a nursing home on Winter Street for family housing for recovering drug addicts.

Precinct 8 Town Meeting Member Tom O'Neil would like to see a more equitable tax base.  O'Neil opposed plans by Wayside Youth and Family Support Network to run a 72-room facility for teens with mental and emotional issues.

"You cannot keep dumping more taxes on property owners," said O'Neil.  "We should try to have a tax base that is fair and equitable."

Framingham High School's student body president Matt Handverger agrees.

"The town should find other ways to get the money it needs," he said.  "The cost of living is too high around here.  Everything is overpriced."

MetroWest Chamber of Commerce President Ted Welte hopes the town increases its tax base by attracting more business to Framingham and keeping those already in town.

"We really need to take a more pro-active approach to attract business to the community," Welte said.  "We need to focus on business and economic development.  It's a long-term process, but there are many things already in place."

One of the projects to attract more business to town is the mixed-use Arcade Project, which is often held up as the cornerstone of downtown revitalization.  Recently, Town Meeting approved a tax financing agreement that Arcade developers say they need to go forward with construction.

For the Brazilian community, the Arcade Project represents a huge concern, since the majority of the businesses in the Arcade building are owned by Brazilians.

Ilton Lisboa, vice-president of Framingham's Brazilian American Association, would like the town to start a dialogue with the Brazilian community about the Arcade Project.

For Laura Medrano, executive director of the MetroWest Latin American Center, one of the main challenges facing the town is the increased polarization between groups in the community.

"We're very divided," Medrano said.  "There is the Northside and the Southside, the renters and the homeowners, the old-timers and the newcomers.  We're very polarized."

Selectman Chairwoman Katie Murphy is confident that the town can overcome its challenges, but she still worries about how the town can deliver quality services while receiving less state aid and having a limited tax base.

"The most critical issue is making an investment in ourselves," said Murphy.  "We have to take a look at where we are and where we want to be, and figure out strategies to get there."

Investing in infrastructure and capital improvement projects is crucial for the town's future, she said.

Capital Budget Committee Chairwoman Jeanne Bullock agrees.

Even in hard times, the town shouldn't cut back on capital budget projects, she said, but she acknowledges that's not easy.  Convincing people that the situation is not that bad is hard, she said.

But Bullock is optimistic.

"We have to convince people it's not the end of the world," said Bullock, who has been in the Capital Budget Committee for more than six years.  "Nothing is insurmountable."

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