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Getting hit both ways

Bob Ford’s three-bedroom Brockton home was built more than 40 years ago. By today’s standards, the modest raised ranch may be considered a starter house.

In recent years, as stocks tumbled and the housing bubble burst, the property’s value plummeted, from a high of $308,900 in fiscal 2007, when assessments reflected the hot real estate market of 2005, to just $188,300 this fiscal year, a drop of 39 percent. Ford’s annual property tax bill, on the other hand, increased 9.6 percent during the same six-year period, to $3,178 this year, up from $2,900.  

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“Our tax bills just keep going up, and yet the city claims it’s broke,” said Ford, 69. “Where is all of our money going? No one knows.”

Homeowners throughout Greater Boston’s suburbs are echoing Ford’s frustration. Over the past six years, a period marred by the recession that began in December 2007, the value of most residents’ biggest asset, their home, has diminished. Still, their property tax bills continue to rise, even as Governor Deval Patrick proposes an increase in the state income tax rate.

A Globe review of state Department of Revenue data found that between fiscal 2007 and 2013, average assessed values of single-family houses dropped in more than 90 percent of the area’s communities, even as property taxes spiraled upward. Proposition 2½, the state law that limits increases in property taxes, allows for the annual bills to go up even when values weaken.

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North of Boston, homeowners in Lawrence — where the average tax bill grew 18.6 percent, to $2,530, over the six-year period— suffered the sharpest decline in property values, a 27.4 percent drop to an average of $167,771.

In Boston’s western suburbs, the biggest loser was Hudson, where assessments fell 24.3 percent, to an average of $286,966, and the average tax bill ballooned 30.3 percent, to $4,700. 

‘We can’t let things continue to deteriorate. We need to change the way City Hall functions.’

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Only six Greater Boston communities — Arlington, Cohasset, Needham, Winchester, Weston, and Wellesley — showed an increase in average value, with most posting modest gains ranging from 2 to 4 percent.

“Your assessed value can go down, but because the levy goes up 2.5 percent every year, your tax bill is going to go up,” said Carolyn C. Ryan, a policy analyst for the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, an independent watchdog group. Any tax revenue attrib­utable to new growth can also be factored into the annual rate.

The average assessed value for a house in Boston’s suburbs this fiscal year is $424,094, down 12.8 percent from fiscal 2007. Meanwhile, the average property tax bill is $6,239, up from $5,088, an increase of 22.6 percent.

In 81 of the 158 communities covered by the Globe’s survey, values dropped by more than 14 percent during the six-year period. The southern suburbs were the hardest hit; of the 10 communities that suffered the biggest ­decrease in value, eight lie south of Boston. Brockton led the list with a 36.7 percent drop. The assessed value of Ford’s home is slightly above the $184,364 city average.

Needham — where the average assessment climbed 9.2 percent, to $744,764 — led all suburban communities in bucking the market trend.

The reason: Many people want to settle in Needham, but there are few lots available. Buyers are snapping up older houses and razing them to make way for minimansions. On average, there are 75 to 100 new houses built in Needham each year, almost all of them tear-down replacements, according to Chip Davis, the town’s administrative assessor.

“Needham has four commuter rail stops and easy access to the Mass. Pike and Route 128,” said Davis. “It’s a very desirable, very stable market. We’ve continued to grow throughout the crash. It’s been high and very consistent over the past three or four years,’’ generating $1.5 million to $1.8 million in new tax revenue each year, he said.

Needham’s average single-family tax bill is $8,416 in fiscal 2013, which runs through June 30. Overall, 13 area communities have average bills above $10,000. All but one, Manchester-by-the-Sea ($10,522), are in the western suburbs, led by Weston, where the average bill is $16,921. In all 13 communities, the average tax bill rose by at least 10 percent between fiscal 2007 and 2013.

Statewide, the average property tax rate increase has remained steady over the past three fiscal years, between 3 and 4 percent, according to a recent report by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. The relatively small growth reflects sluggishness in new construction, tougher mortgage qualification, and voter reluctance to approve higher taxes through Proposition 2½ overrides.

Last fiscal year, Massachusetts voters approved just $15 million in tax increases, the foundation reported.

Homeowners in Essex, where voters approved four overrides between July 2000 and May 2005, have shouldered the highest property tax increase, 43.8 percent, bringing the tax bill for the average single-­family house to $7,474 this fiscal year, up from $5,198 in fiscal 2007. 

Across the suburbs, the tax bills for some homeowners rose proportionately more than others, depending on the assessed values of their homes.

In some communities, those hardest hit were homeowners on the lower end of the market, including those in starter homes and condominiums, according to an inform­al survey of area assessors.

In Georgetown, prices for higher-end houses dropped significantly between 2007 and 2008, while assess­ments for more modest properties declined less dramatically.

“We saw a 10 to 15 percent reduction in value, with higher-end homes dropping considerably more than that,” said Georgetown assessor Jay M. Ferreira. “The market today is reminiscent of ’93, ’94, the last time we saw a big adjustment in values. Things are getting back to normal, more stable.”

The data reviewed does not include information from nine communities — Brookline, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, ­Marlborough, Plainville, Somerville, Waltham, and ­Watertown — that gave a tax break to homeowners who live in their properties in either fiscal 2007 or 2013, or both. As a ­result, the data from those communities do not match the information collected from other cities and towns.

Communities across the state typically issue their official tax rates in December, halfway through the fiscal year, so the first two quarterly bills are estimated. The new rates are reflected in the third quarter bill, usually mailed out around the holidays.

That is when phone calls to the assessor’s office increase, as home­owners try to figure out how the new payment amount was calculated.

Most homeowners know their home’s ­assessed value is based on the sale prices of comparable properties in the area, but they often are unaware that local officials are required to use sales from the previous calendar year to determine a property’s worth. This fiscal year’s assessments reflect where market values stood on Jan. 1, 2012.

Most of the time, a quick explanation is all that is needed to calm a disgruntled homeowner. But sometimes irate taxpayers are not easily assuaged, local officials say.

In Brockton, fed up residents are storming City Hall — more than 200 people showed up at a City Council meeting last month — to protest an ­increase in the tax rate, and to demand more transparency in ­local government.

A group of concerned citizens formed Brocktonians for Limited Taxation.

“We can’t let things continue to deteriorate,” said Ford, an ­active member of the organization.

“We need to change the way City Hall functions,’’ he said. “The only way to do that is to put some new faces on the City Council and in the mayor’s office.”

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@ gmail.com.
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