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The tax bill of Southborough residents Robert and Carole Maconi will rise about 3 percent.
The tax bill of Southborough residents Robert and Carole Maconi will rise about 3 percent. (Robert E. Klein for the Boston Globe)

Property taxes still on rise in Mass.

State's median bill will top $3,000

Massachusetts property owners will get socked with another sizable increase in property taxes next year, just as their home values are leveling off and other household costs -- from heating bills to gas prices -- continue to increase.

The median property tax bill for single-family homes in most of Massachusetts will be $3,262 in 2006, 6.4 percent more than last year and up 42 percent from the 2000 tax bills, according to a Globe examination of 239 of the state's 351 cities and towns. Most of the new tax rates will go into effect in bills that go out Dec. 31.

The reasons behind the tax increases vary by community. In some cases, it is because residential property values are increasing faster than those of commercial property. In others, residents have voted to increase their property taxes to pay for school improvements or to avoid laying off firefighters and police officers.

Homeowners in Sherborn, Burlington, and Chelsea will see double-digit increases next year while several communities near Boston will see average increases of 4.6 percent or less, including Newton, Quincy, and Brookline. The average tax bill in Cambridge will actually drop 2.8 percent, to $5,632.

The state's highest average bill is in Weston, at $12,865, up from 9.3 percent over 2005. The lowest is in North Adams, where the average tax bill will be $1,404, just 2 percent more than 2005.

Bostonians who own single-family homes will see an increase of 9.2 percent in 2006, down from an 11.7 percent jump between 2004 and 2005. The average tax bill for owners of single-family homes in Boston will be $2,750 in 2006.

Of the 239 cities and towns examined for this article, the Globe found that 230 of them are increasing their average tax bills in 2006.

The analysis also found that property home values are still increasing, though at a much slower rate than last year, another sign that the Bay State, one of the hottest markets in the country over the past decade, is turning into a buyers' market. The average value of a single-family home is $382,303, which at 8.4 percent more than last year is the lowest increase since 2000, according to the Globe analysis.

Meanwhile, the steady increase in property taxes is frustrating for homeowners who are writing bigger checks at a time when many communities are reducing library hours, cutting teaching positions, and increasing user fees.

The bill on Carole Maconi's 95-year-old Southborough home is increasing only about 3 percent next year. But even that, she says, will add to the financial strain of gassing up her 1997 Chevy and rising heating costs for her and her husband, Roger, who are both in their 70s and living on a fixed income.

''We're not in the poorhouse," she said. ''But you almost come to the point where you wonder: when's it going to end?"

The state's Proposition 2 1/2 law, which was approved in 1980, restricts cities and towns from raising the overall tax levy by more than 2 1/2 percent in one year. But a community's tax levy includes everything from commercial and industrial property to single-family homes and condominiums. So although the average single-family home tax bill this year might be increasing by more than 2 1/2 percent, city and town boards could balance that by increasing the tax bill for other property at a slower pace or, in some cases, decreasing it.

The Globe's analysis examined only the tax bills for single-family homes, which make up the largest portion of property tax bills.

Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, attributed the property tax increases to a slowdown in local aid from Beacon Hill, along with steady increases in the cost of providing healthcare for municipal employees, and unexpectedly high snow removal costs last winter that helped create a $93 million deficit statewide.

''Cities and towns are more reliant on property taxes now than at any time in the last quarter century," he said. ''The only revenue source that cities and towns have control over is property taxes."

The property tax increases and their role in the state's finances have spilled over into the governor's race, prompted by Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly's call for a rollback in the state income tax rate. Democratic hopeful Deval L. Patrick criticized Reilly, arguing that a cut in income taxes would further strain local aid budgets and force cities and towns to continue increasing property taxes.

''I don't think it's honest to say to people that we can afford a tax rollback right now," Patrick told reporters Thursday. ''We have cities and towns . . . that are absolutely struggling because local aid has virtually disappeared and property taxes are in many places at an all-time high."

Though Governor Romney and state lawmakers have increased state aid recently, cities and towns still complain about the cutbacks stemming from the fiscal crisis of three years ago. After adjusting for inflation, state aid in 2006 is almost $700 million below 2002, according to a report released last month by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. As a result, cities and towns have become more reliant on property taxes to fill their coffers.

In 1988, property taxes represented 46.1 percent of total municipal revenues; in 2004, the percentage jumped to 52.9 percent, according to a separate report by the Municipal Finance Task Force, a group of private, public, and academic leaders that called for more local aid.

Some observers say local officials should blame themselves, not the state, for property tax increases. The recent reductions in state aid followed higher state payments during the economic prosperity of the 1990s, and critics say cities and towns have felt pressure to raise property taxes in recent years because they expanded services and signed overly generous collective bargaining agreements during the boom.

Several of the 16 local assessors interviewed by the Globe last week said some cities and towns have reacted to the slowdown in state aid: Budgets have been trimmed and pink slips have been handed out, which, in some cases, has actually helped slow the tax increases because towns need less operating revenue.

''The cities and towns are becoming more conservative because we have to tighten our belt and lay off firefighters, policemen, and teachers," said Richard M. Brescia, chief assessor in Somerville, where the average tax bill in 2006 will be to $2,788, a 7.6 percent increase; tax hikes in recent years have been much higher, approaching 30 percent. ''Because of the loss of state aid, we have to be ultra conservative. We're down to the bone."

In Cambridge, the average tax bill will decrease for the first time in 10 years, and city officials sent three letters to residents and put a video on cable TV to explain why.

The decline is driven in large part by a growth in commercial and industrial properties, which took some of the burden off of homeowners, according to Robert P. Reardon, director of the assessing department. The City Council also voted this year to use reserve accounts to pay for budget increases, rather than increase the budget through raising taxes.

''The homeowners were getting crucified each year," said Robert Donnelly, chairman of board of assessors in Malden, where the average single-family bill is increasing by 4.2 percent, to $2,849.

According to the Globe examination, the state's largest percentage tax increase was a 22.7 percent hike in Burlington, where the average homeowner's bill in 2006 will be $3,663. The deepest cut was a 20.9 percent drop in Petersham, located in the center of the state, where the average bill will be $2,452.

The state, which provided most of the property tax figures for this article, relies on a median figure to determine property tax burdens statewide, and uses an average to calculate tax burdens in individual cities and towns.

Matt Viser can be reached at

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