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FRAMINGHAM

Property tax hike angers residents

Decrease in value of businesses cited

Framingham residents flocked to a recent selectmen’s meeting to complain about an 11 percent jump in the town’s average property tax bill, more than double last year’s increase.

“My bill went up $732 in this one increase,’’ said Town Meeting member Robert Bolles, who suggested cutting the school budget to bring taxes down. “Your average Joe and retirees cannot afford this rate increase.’’

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Town officials urged residents to file for abatements (due by Feb. 1) if they feel their homes are overvalued, and suggested senior citizens, veterans, and the disabled should seek tax exemptions before the March 1 deadline.

But they said there was nothing they could do about the overall increase, since the tax rate for this fiscal year has been approved by the state.

Revenue Department spokesman Robert Bliss confirmed the town’s stance. “The horse is well out of the barn here with the certification and the property values,’’ he said. “The Department of Revenue has reviewed the tax rate, and bills have been mailed out. At this point, there’s no turning back on this year. What the town chooses to do going forward is entirely up to them.’’

The tax bill on a $340,000 house, the average in town, is around $5,700, a $576 increase for fiscal year 2012, which started in July. The increase is more than double the increase represented by last year’s average bill, at 4.4 percent, or $218. There was a 5.2 percent increase in 2010, and a 1.8 percent drop in 2009.

Framingham’s chief financial officer, Mary Ellen Kelley, blamed the increase in residential property taxes on a significant decrease in the value of commercial property in town, and the resulting shift in the municipal tax burden to homeowners.

“People are looking at this as giant leap in taxes, and it is very significant - it’s the biggest one we’ve had for a number of years,’’ said Kelley. “But 75 percent of this move is because commercial values have dropped significantly, and residential values are up 3.3 percent.’’

She said another factor behind the increase is Town Meeting’s vote last spring to raise the tax levy by 2.5 percent, the most allowed under Proposition 2 1/2 without a townwide vote.

The overall town budget this year is $217.8 million, a 2.25 percent increase over last year. The school district’s portion is approximately $91 million, a rise of 3.4 percent.

Framingham officials said they have done what they can to lessen the residential tax. In setting the tax rates last month, the Board of Selectmen voted to apply the maximum shift - 1.75 percent - of the burden onto businesses. As a result, residents are paying $16.94 per $1,000 of assessed value while businesses are paying $38.05 per $1,000.

Kelley said if the town had not adopted the split system, both residents and business owners would be paying a rate of $21.74.

She also said that residential property valuations seem higher than current market prices because the town used data from the 2010 calendar year, when prices were boosted by state and federal tax incentives for homebuyers.

“They offered an $8,000 homebuyer tax credit if you bought a new home, which was to help remedy the Great Recession,’’ Kelley said. “In 2010, those incentives to move homes and increase sales increased prices quite a bit.’’

She also noted that for this year, Framingham studied the entire town, instead of a few neighborhood samplings, to determine property values, which contributed to higher assessments.

All Massachusetts municipalities go through the reassessment process every three years, Kelley said.

More than 75 residents were at the Board of Selectmen meeting Jan. 10, demanding to know why their taxes have soared.

Some questioned whether commercial properties are being undervalued.

They asked why the Old Connecticut Path Marketplace, which was sold last month for $23.2 million - $13 million more than its town-assessed value - was not given a higher valuation to help shift the tax burden.

Assessor Daniel Dargon said the purchase price differed from the property valuation because the new owner paid for income produced by highly valued tenants with long-term leases, like Super Stop & Shop.

He said all such properties are measured consistently by using the same methods statewide.

Resident Jim Magner said he wanted to take action, and demanded selectmen sponsor an underride, or a permanent reduction in the tax levy. Few communities have mounted efforts to take this step, the opposite of a Proposition 2 1/2 tax cap override. But Kelley said an underride would not be possible this fiscal year because the process would take too long, and the Department of Revenue would not go back on its certification.

Jason Smith, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, reminded residents that an underride would mean cutting services to balance the budget, and said he would want additional analysis before losing teachers, firefighters, and police officers.

Selectman Charles Sisitsky said that for next fiscal year, the board and town finance officials should draw up several budget proposals for Town Meeting, including one based on a 2.5 percent increase in the tax levy, and another with an increase of 1 percent or 1.5 percent.

“I think it will surprise people how much money we would need to cut out of the budget to achieve that goal, and find out where those cuts will come from,’’ he said, predicting that education, police, and fire services would be trimmed.

Kelley said in an interview that Framingham’s forecasted future spending far exceeds the additional revenue it would gain by increasing the levy 2.5 percent each year.

“If we’re voting to maximize the tax levy under Proposition 2 1/2, we still have to cut budgets because they’re increasing by forecasted costs of $5 million to $6 million a year,’’ she said. “If our property taxes are capped at $3.9 million, then you’ve got to cut a couple million dollars to fit within that revenue amount.’’

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