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Steady rise in taxes for all, with spikes for some

Four years ago, Norah Gilbert had her Dedham home remodeled so she wouldn’t have to climb stairs anymore. But she didn’t count on her property taxes rising through the roof.

The 82-year-0ld Gilbert, who has lived in Dedham since 1956, saw the value of her home rise as the town was building a new school, upgrading its sewers and sidewalks, and welcoming some big developments. The result was a $7,500 property tax bill for 2013, up from $4,900 in 2010.

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“She did something to stay in her home, and now the town is taxing her out of it,” said her daughter, Mary.

Gilbert’s experience is being felt around Dedham, where the owner of the average single-family home will pay $6,217 in property taxes this fiscal year, according to the state Department of Revenue. That’s an increase of 68 percent from 10 years ago, when the average bill was $3,697.

Among 48 area communities, the increases in property taxes from fiscal 2004 to 2014 have varied widely, with three of them less than 30 percent and four more than 60 percent. But there are often common factors in towns with hefty increases.

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In Duxbury, where the taxes on the average single-family home rose by 59 percent over the last decade, large construction projects played a big role.

The town bonded more than $83 million late in 2012 for such projects as a new school and upgrades to the Fire Department and police station, said Duxbury’s finance director, John Madden.

“The tax rate that we just set in November was right around a 15 percent increase, but that was bringing on $8 million of debt service in one year,” Madden said.

Though the town’s AAA bond rating holds down borrowing costs, Madden noted a small, mainly residential town like Duxbury, with a population of about 15,000, is sensitive to fluctuations in its budget.

“When you’re looking at 6,500 homes, it doesn’t take much to create a bubble,” he said.

That small-town effect is also evident in Avon, where the percentage increase was the only one larger than Dedham’s in communities south of Boston.

Avon’s assistant assessor, David Wood, said that selectmen in the past two years have been shifting the tax burden to residential properties from commercial and industrial properties in the community, which has a population of less than 5,000.

Residential taxpayers were paying 33.7 percent of the total taxes in town two years ago, and their share changed to 36 percent this year, said Wood.

The climb also reflected temporary tax increases approved by residents to pay for capital projects, Wood said.

On the other end of the spectrum, Whitman’s average property tax rose only 20 percent over the last 10 years.

Whitman, with a population of about 14,000, has held the line on spending, said Town Administrator Frank Lynam. The most recent capital project required a $10 million bond that was approved in 2010 to renovate the fire station and Town Hall, and build a police station. But a temporary tax increase to repay the bond was not required because the town covered the payments within state-imposed limits on tax revenue, he said.

“Unlike many of the communities around us, we haven’t built up staff over the years,” Lynam said. “We’ve increased two police officers and one administrative person. Not many towns can say that.”

Dedham officials say their tax increases have allowed the town to fund some important needs, and are a sign of fiscal responsibility. Still, some officials are concerned about the effect on residents, particularly the older ones in a town of about 25,000 people.

“I bring up the example of my parents and other seniors,” Selectman Carmen DelloIacono said in an interview. “They bought in Dedham in ’64, and from then until 1998 their taxes were $1,500 to $1,800. . . . Now, all of a sudden, they are at almost $6,000.”

DelloIacono said Dedham’s older residents who are on fixed incomes are particularly vulnerable to tax increases.

“Seniors are getting snubbed and pushed out,” DelloIacono said. “They can’t afford it.”

Fighting to keep her mother in her home, Mary Gilbert has been looking into the reasons for the increase. She has filed abatement applications to reduce the property’s tax valuation, and became a Town Meeting member to get more informed on budget issues.

“The argument I’ve heard, and I can’t disagree with it, is for years and years Dedham didn’t invest in its infrastructure,” Gilbert said. “We need to invest in sewers and sidewalks. I get that. I get that some of the schools have to be upgraded.”

At a meeting to set the tax rate in December, Town Manager William Keegan said the town was making up for lost time. Dedham now is on track to pay for road and sewer improvements and fund employee pensions and other post-employment benefits without having to borrow for the next 14 years, and recently achieved a AAA bond rating, he said.

“We don’t kick the can down the road like some communities do,” Keegan told selectmen.

William Gorman, whose son moved to Norwood instead of Dedham because of the taxes, said he believed Dedham’s commercial base should help reduce residential taxes. He pointed to the huge shopping center Legacy Place, which opened in 2009.

“We’re not a bedroom community,” Gorman said in an interview.

However, the Providence Highway retail complex, along with a large new senior housing complex, NewBridge on the Charles, actually resulted in millions of dollars in increased spending and taxes, according to John Duffy, Dedham’s director of assessments.

Under Proposition 2½, a community’s property tax revenue cannot grow by more than 2.5 percent a year without the approval of voters. However, tax revenue from “new growth,” the construction or expansion of homes and commercial buildings, is not subject to this restriction.

Selectman James MacDonald said that over the long term, the shopping center will hold down taxes by contributing to the Robin Reyes Municipal Stabilization Fund. Fed by local meals and hotel/motel taxes, the fund will enable the town to pay for future building projects without raising property taxes, town leaders say.

Legacy Place is “a huge contributor because of their restaurants and the additional tax that is collected,” MacDonald said in an interview.

He added that during the economic downturn, Dedham did not have to reduce services because of the influx of money from the building fees and new growth from Legacy Place and NewBridge.

Margot Pyle, a resident of Dedham for about 50 years, said she thinks that tax money has been used well and that taxes in town are fair.

At the same time, Pyle noted that she had to move out of her longtime home.

“I didn’t like to leave the house, but the house was lived in by six people and then it was just lived in by me, and it was expensive to live there,” Pyle said.

For the future, DelloIacono said he wants to see tax increases reduced to zero, but more important, he hopes to provide residents with a more comprehensive breakdown of how their taxes are used. He said that the Board of Selectmen chairman, Michael Butler, was working on a way to do that.

“There has to be an education process so people can see in black and white what their dollar is doing,” he said.

Mary Gilbert’s priority is keeping her mother in her home. She has been working with Dedham’s state legislators to find a program to help.

“If I was approaching my 70s, I wouldn’t want to be in a strange space. I want to be in a space I’m comfortable in,” Mary Gilbert said. “I shouldn’t have to be forced to sell because of the taxes.”

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at eisen.globe@ gmail.com.
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