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Property tax hikes winning support

Despite hardships, programs preserved

By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / June 12, 2009
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In a baffling trend playing out against an abysmal economy, voters have approved property tax increases in at least 11 communities around Boston in recent weeks, reaching into their own pockets to preserve libraries, schools, and public safety services.

Among them was the town of Rockland, which has passed only one other property tax override since voters enacted Proposition 2 1/2 more than 25 years ago. Late last month, as people around the state watched every penny, not to mention every tax dollar, Rockland voted to raise its property taxes to save an elementary school and a library.

At least five communities have also rejected property tax increases in recent weeks, but the passage by 11 other communities underscores the impact of budget cuts on cities and towns.

"The basic point is this recession is very bad, it's very tough, but cutting and cutting and cutting until there's no more is not a balanced approach to solving the problem," said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. "Communities, especially those at the breaking point in terms of services, recognize that there's a point at which these investments must be made if the community wants to stay where it is or move forward."

Both wealthy and not-so-wealthy towns approved the increases. Rockland faced closure of a school and a library. Winthrop voted for a tax increase to continue trash collection and keep open the library and senior center.

Belmont and Middleton paid for new schools, and Walpole voted to finance a new library. Those communities qualified for state grants by coming up with matching money raised by their tax increases.

But against the backdrop of an historic economic downturn, the votes to boost property taxes have Chip Faulkner, associate director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, shaking his head in disbelief.

"If you had asked me a year ago when the economy started to plummet . . . if you said, 'How are the overrides going to go this spring?' I would have guessed that 90 percent of them would fail," he said. "People are gluttons for punishment."

In Milton, override supporters like Jeffrey Cruikshank weren't at all confident they would be able to persuade voters to raise their annual property tax bill an average of $340 (based on the average home, valued at $530,000).

But supporters convinced most voters that without a tax increase, the high school could lose accreditation, police staffing would be cut to "19th-century" levels, and the Fire Department would have to give up either a firetruck or a station, said Cruikshank.

The $3.4 million override was the biggest ever that passed in Milton. It was approved by a 54 percent-to-46 percent margin.

"A lot of people were starting out saying, 'No I don't think so.' Then they would hear these stories and they would say, 'Oh gosh I guess I have to do this,' " Cruikshank said. "We were sailing into a stiff wind."

Rockland's passage of a $2.8 million override last month might be the most surprising, given the town's history. The only other override that has passed was $389,500 for police, fire, and paramedic services, approved in 2001. Rockland voters have rejected six other proposed tax hikes (some debt exclusions and some overrides) since 2001.

But this year, the stakes were high. Without passage, plans called for shutting down an elementary school and the library, in addition to other cuts. Voters approved money for the school by a 70-30 margin and overwhelmingly backed the other increases as well.

Jeanine Oliver, chairwoman of the town's pro-override group, has a daughter at the school that would have been closed, but she also has a husband who has been stung by the recession. The tax bill will go up an additional $427 annually on the average home assessed at $296,500.

"My husband had been laid off, but we were willing to make sacrifices," she said. "Our schools and community are one of the most important investments we can make in our lifetime."

Both debt exclusions and overrides require voter approval under Proposition 2 1/2, but while debt exclusions allow for a temporary tax increase, often 20 years, overrides are permanent. Regardless of the economy, it's almost always easier to pass a debt exclusion than an operating override, because the former is for a concrete project, like a school, while the latter is for the town's budget, according to Beckwith.

There have been far fewer overrides attempted this spring compared with past years, in part due to the recession, said Beckwith.

Although there is no official count for the entire year, Beckwith said the recent passage rate appears higher than in years past. Over the last two years, about half the overrides failed.

He predicts the state budget cutbacks will force more cities and towns to ask voters to raise property taxes in the coming year.

"Next year if local aid cuts go through, we expect a significant increase in override attempts, even if communities know they are likely to fail, because cutting services even more would be totally irresponsible from their perspective," he said.

Faulkner warned that tax increases could weaken the already shaky housing market. "It's a surprise that they're doing it and it's a shame because I think what it might do is accelerate more people moving out of Massachusetts," said Faulkner.

A few of the communities, such as Belmont and Milton, are relatively affluent, which usually means property values remain fairly constant.

Earlier this week, voters in Belmont passed a $27.6 million debt exclusion for a new Wellington Elementary School. Belmont's voters easily approved the measure, by a vote of 3,849 to 2,022, The tax bill on an average home worth $753,000 will go up an additional $375 a year. The average tax bill is now $8,951.

Putting the recession aside, supporters tried to focus on the long term benefit of approving the project now, said Laurie Slap, co-chairwoman of Together for Wellington.

She and other advocates emphasized to voters that the state's promise of $12.4 million for the project would disappear if the vote failed, and, amazingly, they also managed to take advantage of the recession.

"The benefit of the slow economy is construction costs are low and interest rates are low, so long term this investment really makes a lot of sense for the town," she said.

Still, campaigners had to temper their passion when they ran into someone who was hit hard by the recession.

"I think we really, really respected those people who said they simply couldn't - we didn't want to keep arguing," said Slap. "[We] tried to put most of our efforts on the maybes, who didn't have such a compelling financial reason to say no."

Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or lkocian@globe.com.