Real Estate > Community Profiles > Fitchburg
Town has big wish list, but tiny tax base

By Thomas Grillo, Globe Correspondent, 10/05/2002

    More information on Heath from Boston.com's Your Town section.
 AT A GLANCE

Incorporated: 1785
Population: 805
Area: 25 square miles
Tax rate: $24.20 residential
Government: open town meeting, selectmen
Distance from Boston: 120 miles
Median house price: $50,415
Schools: one elementary; town is a member of Mohawk Trail Regional School District
 
HEATH — Not in every community does the administrator answer Town Hall's telephone. But in this small municipality on the Vermont border, between the Connecticut River and the New York state line, Rebecca Jurek wears many hats. "I do a little of everything," says Jurek, town coordinator.

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These days, rural Heath, population 805, is struggling with a lack of cash that has so far prevented town officials from replacing outdated municipal buildings.

The town is seeking $1.6 million from the state Department of Housing and Community Development to upgrade Community Hall, the gathering place for senior citizens and town meetings. A decision is expected in December.

In addition, the town has acquired land for a new municipal center that would house the police and fire departments. Another lot has been acquired for a library. But so far there's no money to build it. "We have a wish list of nearly $5 million in basic capital improvements," Jurek said.

For now, the post office, police department, library, assessors, and selectmen will continue to share the cramped 168-year-old Town Hall.

Another potential budget-buster: the capping of the dump that was once shared by Heath, Hawley, and Charlemont. The dump closed in 1987, but officials in Heath and Hawley say Charlemont has not paid its fair share for capping the landfill and monitoring compliance with environmental rules.

Raising money isn't easy for the town. It has Peters General Store, but little else in the way of a commercial tax base. Heath's tax rate, more than $24 per $1,000 of assessed value, is among the highest in Massachusetts. In addition, home values are low. This year, Heath has the lowest median sales price, $50,415, for a single-family home in Massachusetts, according to The Warren Group.

This week, MLS Property Information Network listed nine homes for sale in Heath, six of them for under $150,000. The lowest-priced is a modest one-room house, for $35,000. On the top end is a 13-room home built in 1767. This historic home has six bedrooms, four baths, six fireplaces, and a garage on 25 acres, for $895,000.

As the number of family farms dwindled, Heath's residents turned to cottage industries and jobs an hour or more away on hilly roads.

Of the 800-plus residents, about 300 arrive each summer to enjoy Mohawk Estates, a wooded refuge for vacationers.

Every August, residents host a country fair at the Heath Fairgrounds, on a hill a mile north of the town center. Not as well known is the Wagon Train that winds through town in September. The excursion offers a stop at Burnt Hill, a blueberry farm. From atop the hill are breathtaking views.

The schools are part of the Mohawk Trail Regional School District. Heath's 10th-graders ranked 134 out of 273 Massachusetts school districts on the state MCAS tests.

At Heath Elementary, 75 percent of third-graders scored "proficient" in English. In the fourth grade, 59 percent "need improvement" in English, and 6 percent failed. In math, 47 percent need improvement and 6 percent failed.

Among sixth-graders, 30 percent failed math, and 45 percent need improvement.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 09/21/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company
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