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Facing potential protest, Brockton City Council acts to lower local tax burden

The Brockton City Council has taken $1 million in new growth and state aid revenue that some officials wanted to put into a stabilization account, and will use it instead to help lower the tax burden on residents and businesses by reducing the amount of money that must be raised through taxes next year.

The move last week comes ahead of an expected protest at a meeting Monday  at which the 11-member City Council is scheduled to hear public comment before setting Brockton’s property tax rates for fiscal year 2013. By law, municipalities can raise their tax levy – the total amount collected in property taxes — by up to 2.5 percent each year.

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Council president Thomas Brophy, an at-large councilor, said the panel agreed to apply the savings because it wants to do what it can to help residents weather tough times.

“It’s not that we are rolling in dough,’’ Brophy said, of the funds that would have gone to capital and other projects. “But everyone has felt the effects of this recession.”

Members of the grass-roots group Brocktonians for Limited Taxation said they planned to pack Monday’s meeting to make the point that the city could find even more savings to help people hit hard by the slow economy if it wanted to. The Metro South Chamber of Commerce has also urged its members to attend and ask the council to avoid any increases in the tax burden.

“This was a knee-jerk response by the council to take the heat off,” Dick Zaccaro, leader of the grass-roots group, said about the council’s reallocation of revenue. “We are saying we want taxes to go up not 1.5 percent, not 2 percent, but zero.’’

Brophy said that’s an unrealistic view. If residents think that can happen, “they are not living in Brockton, they are living in Oz,” he said.

Brockton’s chief financial officer, John Condon, said the $1 million reallocation will lower the amount the city has to raise through taxes for fiscal year 2013 to $111.5 million but that only translates to a savings of about $40 for a taxpayer with a home assessed at $250,000, and about $20 for one with a home assessed at $200,000. 

“I am sympathetic to what the intent is, but my objection is that the level of relief that is provided is not so significant to help those they are trying to help,’’ he said.

On the other hand, the $1 million reduction will cut deeply into Brockton’s bottom line because so much of the city’s $367.3 million budget is already committed, he said.

Condon said he had hoped to use some of the money to help resolve union contracts.

“Some of the consequences will be borne by our workers,’’ he said. “No one has had an increase in three years.”

Condon refuted the assertion Brockton has high taxes. “Our rates may be high because our values are low, but the tax bills are low, too,’’ he said.

Brockton residents currently pay $16.14 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, a figure that has doubled since 2007 and is $3 over the state median of $13.91, Zaccaro said.

The commercial property tax rate, the 13th highest in the state at $29.96 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, is up from $18.89 in 2006, and one reason why few businesses move to Brockton, he said.

Brocktonians for Limited Taxation says Brockton has the highest tax rates among five area cities for an average home assessed at $250,000. In Brockton, a resident with a $250,000 home would pay $4,035 a year in property taxes versus $3,440 in New Bedford, $3,438 in Quincy, $3,118 in Taunton, and $2,745 in Fall River, group members say.

Additionally, 18 surrounding communities have an average residential tax rate of $13, and a commercial rate of $18, said Zaccaro.

“It’s about time the city cut their losses and gave us a tax break for once,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, Mayor Linda Balzotti said she is concerned about the council’s action because it means some capital improvements and other necessities cannot be addressed, resulting in consequences for all residents down the line.

“That’s not going to come without sacrifice,’’ Balzotti said. “I have four fire stations that need new roofs. Now that may not happen.’’

“She’s right about consequences,’’ Brophy said. “This will affect services.”

But critics have pilloried city officials for unnecessary expenses, including paying close to $6 million a year to the Aquaria Desalinization Plant for water the city doesn’t use. But while some say Brockton should use that money for tax relief, both Balzotti and Condon said it can’t because the funds, consisting of water fees, come from an enterprise account that can’t be used for municipal purposes.

The day may come when the water is needed but, until then, the Aquaria payment is a fixed, contractual cost, Condon said.

“I think this group is wrong on all of the issues,” he said, expressing frustration. “But I’m not going to throw stones.”

Brophy has said protesters risk being ejected from Monday’s meeting if they don’t behave. He has also banned T-shirts or buttons that protest high taxes, and signs.

Zaccaro, subsequently, has asked for an opinion from the American Civil Liberties Union Massachusetts Chapter on what he calls a violation of Constitutional rights.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.
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