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

Bills bring bad news to homeowners Sunday, January 16, 2005
Carolyn Kessel Stewart 508-490-7475 Metrowest Daily News
A collective groan erupted from MetroWest homes last week when the mail arrived.  The tax bill seemed heavier this year, the numbers loomed larger.

It was not just a funhouse mirror distortion.  Taxes in most MetroWest communities jumped at least a third in the past five years, and a few, like Southborough, Upton and Westborough, are up 60 percent.  Homeowners in the wealthiest town in the state, Weston, now fork over an average of $11,767 in taxes.

Many homeowners wonder why they seem to shoulder more of the burden for local services when the state's economy is supposedly on the upswing.

The answer lies in where cities and towns get their revenue, and the red hot residential real estate market.

That fickle real estate market has touched Arthur Ramos, but the lifelong denizen of South Framingham said he would rather have his neighborhood ignored.

The tax bill for his postage stamp lot and "sardine can" house is up to $3,298.  His taxes jumped $653 in just two years.

"I'm angry, there's no question about it," said the 72-year-old Ramos.  "I'm being literally assessed out of my home."  The average single-family tax bill in Framingham this year is $4,125, compared with $3,205 in 2000.

His neighborhood is on the opposite side of the tracks from million dollar homes, and has been picked out by the raging market as a new hot spot because it is one of the few places first-time homebuyers and immigrants can get their feet in the door.

Framingham Assessor Mike Flynn does not deny South Framingham is experiencing drastic changes in value.

"Some areas of the town are increasing at a greater rate than other areas," he said.  And with commercial values staying flat, more of the total tax burden is pushed to homeowners.

Senior citizens are the ones most often feeling the pinch.  Ramos bought his home more than 30 years ago for $31,000.  He said he and other long-time homeowners should reap some benefit for staying in their homes so long.  In fact, the Legislature as well as cities and towns are working on plans to increase the tax benefit for seniors.  Many programs already exist.

But getting seniors to apply for tax benefits can be difficult.  "It makes me feel like I'm accepting food stamps," Ramos said.  "I don't want to put a lien on the house for my kids."

Regardless of a home's value, towns and cities have to come up with a lot more money for services these days because of continuing cuts to local aid.

"Municipalities have very limited resources for raising money," said Hudson Executive Assistant Paul Blazar.  "The economy has nothing to do with it."  Hudson's average tax bill has increased $885 in the past five years, or 38 percent.

Towns don't receive income taxes or sales tax receipts.  Schools, fire departments and police departments are paid for the most part through state aid and property taxes.  For the past few years the local aid seat on the seesaw has been taking on less burden, while property taxes took on more.

And more money is needed for salaries and health care.

Gov. Mitt Romney has promised to infuse another $183 million into local aid next year and another $75 million was distributed in a supplemental budget last year.

"It's been no secret that over the past two and half years that the state has been in a tough budget crunch," said Romney spokesman Felix Brown.  "Things do seem to be turning around, tax receipts are up at the state level and we are now in a position to send more money back to the cities and towns."

Marlborough Mayor Dennis Hunt is frustrated by the combination of higher demand for services from residents, more state mandates, and less state money.

"We're being strangled from the state," he said.  Aid is down $2.5 million from what it was three years ago, Hunt said.  Taxes are up 36 percent in the past five years.

"It's really a difficult task to balance it," he said.  "Marlborough I really think is a good value.  I think what you get for your tax dollar -- trash pickup, no bus or athletic fees -- we've tried to give good city services."

But in Medway, a group of residents fought a proposed override saying they did not want to pay for the services they had, and nearly won.

The tax rate has not been set yet in Medway, but Sal LaRiccia who led the Proposition 2 1/2 underride movement said they will be up 9.6 percent this year.

"There are so many opportunities to cut costs, what's lacking in Medway is fiscal responsibility," LaRiccia said.  He suggested cutting teacher salaries and employee health benefits, governed by collective bargaining agreements, and setting up school bus and school athletic fees.

"There's an entitlement mentality," he said. Medway is unaffordable to its own residents, he said.  The average tax bill last year was $4,400.

Ron Picard, a Bellingham selectman and garage owner, has overseen one of the more modest tax increases in MetroWest, 30 percent.

There have been no overrides, but town departments are making due with fewer employees since a hiring freeze was enacted.

"We lost two people on the police department, more at town hall offices.  We just split the work load amongst the other employees."

Overrides are being abused by cities and towns, according to the Citizens for Limited Taxation, the statewide group that created the ballot question of proposition 2 1/2.

When Proposition 2 1/2 was proposed 25 years ago, overrides were considered emergency measures, said Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Now overrides are everywhere, she said.  Proposition 2 1/2 limits the tax levy increase in a community to 2.5 percent of the previous year's levy, excluding new growth and the amount of any overrides or debt exclusion voters have passed.

The problem is, she said, that when people are paying high property taxes, they demand more services.

"When you're paying the sixth highest property taxes in the country, when you're paying these high taxes you start to think 'I want something for that.'"  But there is no way each person can get a full return on his or her taxes.

There is upside, however, to putting more of the tax burden on local homeowners, Anderson said.  They have more control over how their money is spent.

Ramos, who feels his end of Framingham is being hit harder than the more affluent end of town with new taxes, just wants to see the bills stop.

"I can't sleep, I can't eat," he said. "Just leave my taxes alone."

Send comments to: hjw2001@gmail.com