No one likes to pay property taxes. But in Boxborough, homeowners got some welcome news when their bills arrived this year.
The town of just over 5,000 residents west of Boston is the only Eastern Massachusetts municipality where property tax bills for single-family homes are lower today than they were in 2012. The average bill dropped $99 — or roughly 1 percent — from $9,080 in fiscal 2012 to $8,981 this year. That’s even though the average assessed value climbed 8 percent to $548,990.
“That mostly has to do with the conservative approach the Finance Committee and Board of Selectmen take,” noted Ruth T. Anderson, Boxborough’s assessor. “They choose not to spend to the levy limit, not even close. Typically, when you set your levy limit, you take the last year’s limit and add in 2.5 percent. Boxborough does not add that 2.5 percent.”
But as home values throughout the suburbs continue to rise, property taxes are creeping ever higher in many other cities and towns as bean counters struggle to close the gap between revenues and expenses.
A Globe review of state Department of Revenue data for 151 municipalities outside Boston found that between fiscal 2012 and 2016, the average property tax bill for a single-family home climbed from an average of $5,658 to $6,531, or 15.4 percent.
During the same period, the average assessed value of a single-family home increased about 9.9 percent, from $409,768 to $450,248.
The northern suburbs were the hardest hit; of the 10 municipalities that saw the biggest percentage increase in the average single-family tax bill, six lie north of Boston. Wilmington led, with an average jump of $1,416 — or 32.6 percent — to $5,759.
Taxpayers often question how their bills can balloon so quickly, given the state’s tax-cap law, passed in 1980. While the law limits increases to 2½ percent of the total property taxes collected in a municipality, it allows for several exceptions, including for new construction. In addition, voters can choose to surpass the limit by approving an override, a permanent tax hike, or a debt exclusion, an increase that lasts only as long as the loan for a particular project.
Wilmington homeowners, for example, are paying for a new high school, an appropriation approved by voters in December 2011. The Massachusetts School Building Authority paid about $38 million for the project, while the town covered the $44.7 million remainder through a debt exclusion.
“The taxpayers of Wilmington have a long history of investing in education,” said Jeffrey Hull, town manager. “The high school debt exclusion, which was applied to tax bills in early 2013, funded a modern educational facility that provides students with the tools and space they need to succeed. It was an investment in Wilmington’s future.”
Residents also are shouldering a larger tax burden because of rising property values: The average assessment for a single-family home increased 10 percent, from $357,745 in fiscal 2012 to $393,643 this year. Meanwhile, commercial and industrial values have declined.
In Shrewsbury, homeowners are feeling the effects of a $5.5 million override approved by voters in June 2014 — the town’s first tax hike to increase operational budgets — and a $13.6 million debt exclusion approved in 2013 to build a library addition. Several debt exclusions were passed in earlier years to fund various school projects and land purchases. The town posted the largest percentage tax increase west of Boston, with a gain of 25.1 percent. The average single-family bill jumped $1,039, from $4,139 in fiscal 2012 to $5,178 this year.
South of Boston, Avon posted the largest percentage increase, 33.1 percent. There, the average tax bill swelled from $3,611 in fiscal 2012 to $4,807 this year, an increase of $1,196. The town has just 1,280 single-family homes, so small budget changes have a big impact.
In recent years, the tax burden in Avon has shifted to residences from commercial and industrial properties because of “greater price fluctuations in the residential market,” said Paul J. Sullivan, assistant assessor. In fiscal 2012, for example, residential taxpayers were shouldering 33.7 percent of the total taxes in town; their share increased to 38 percent this year. The heftier bills also reflected temporary tax increases approved in prior years by voters to pay for capital projects, Sullivan said.
Twenty-nine of the 151 municipalities analyzed by the Globe saw their average tax bills on single-family homes rise by 20 percent or more from fiscal 2012 to 2016. The analysis excluded the seven places — Brookline, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Somerville, Waltham, and Watertown — that aren’t required to submit detailed figures to the state because they give a tax break to homeowners who live in their properties.
Comparing 2012 and 2016, tax hikes ranged from 5 percent or less in a handful of communities to the 33.1 percent gain in Avon, or from as little as $192 in Berlin to $2,514 in Lexington, where the average assessment for a single-family home jumped from $697,450 to $887,355. The increase of $189,905 — or 27.2 percent — is the biggest percentage gain in assessed value in any suburb.
Not surprisingly, the highest average tax bills in fiscal 2016 (July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016) are in the 20 towns where homes often command prices of at least $1 million. All but six — Manchester-by-the-Sea (average tax bill of $11,760), Wenham ($10,159), and Winchester ($10,948) in the north, and Cohasset ($11,483), Sharon ($10,148), and Westwood ($10,312) in the south — are in the western suburbs.
Only three municipalities — all of them west of Boston — have average tax bills that exceed $15,000, including Sherborn ($15,104) and Lincoln ($15,033). At the top is Weston, where the average property tax bill is $18,762, the highest in the state. (The statewide average is $5,438.)
On the other end of the spectrum, the Globe analysis showed that the lowest tax bills in the region can be found south and north of the city. Of the eight municipalities with average tax bills under $4,000, only one, Bellingham, is west of Boston ($3,930). Wareham has an average single-family tax bill of $2,674, making it the lowest.
Other places also are holding the line on spending.
In Bridgewater, voters have passed an override only once, in June 2010. That $2.8 million tax hike was approved to fund town departments. The town had the smallest percentage rise in the average single-family property tax bill south of Boston between fiscal 2012 and 2016, an increase of just over 8 percent. The average bill climbed $381, from $4,663 to $5,044.
In Billerica, where voters earlier this month approved a temporary tax hike for a new high school, residents have steadfastly refused to approve any permanent tax increases. Voters defeated 13 override proposals in 1991 and one in 1992. There hasn’t been an override question on the ballot since. The fiscally conservative town had the second-lowest increase in the average single-family tax bill north of Boston between fiscal 2012 and 2016, both in terms of percentage (7.26 percent) and dollar amount ($317).
In Boxborough, where six tax increases were approved by Town Meeting in 2005, fiscal restraint is now the norm.
Belt-tightening is “always a delicate balance,” said Dilip Subramanyam, chairman of Boxborough’s Finance Committee. “Each year, you look at all of your expenses, and then you decide, ‘Do you really need this, do you really need that?’ ”