Friday, September 21, 2012

New Property Tax Rates: More Questions than Answers

By Larry Schmeidler

Framingham's Selectmen wisely started the ball rolling early this year in discussing potentially giving homeowners a real break in property tax valuations for Fiscal 2013.

During its meeting, Wednesday, September 19th, Selectmen heard presentations, with proposals, from Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Mary Ellen Kelley, and Chief Assessor Dan Dargon.

This action is in sharp contrast to the last minute "bombshell" that exploded during their last meeting held in December of 2011, when decisions were made that set off a protracted tax rebellion by homeowners. And the matter gained even more notoriety when it became the basis for a state-wide probe of the entire assessing process by Ch 5-TV investigative reporter, Kelley Tuthill.

At that time, the Selectmen claimed they were backed into a corner, leaving them no option to avoid setting rates that resulted in reducing the burden on the commercial sector while sharply raising rates an average of 11 percent on homeowners.

At the heart of the deliberations was the question of how to spend "extra" money or revenue that could leave the residential rate unchanged in FY13, but increase the commercial side an approximate $40 per $1,000.

The "MetroWest Daily News" reported that the CFO described the dollars that could be used as "$1.2 million in additional state aid". In fact, that amount is said to actually be $1.7 million since Town Meeting will be deciding whether to spend $500,000 from that amount when it meets starting on October 16th.

Moreover, the information provided by the CFO drew immediate comment from residents who queried whether that $1.2 million she cited was actually the surplus resulting from unspent dollars by the end of FY12. A call to the CFO seeking clarification by deadline on September 20th was not returned.

Since homeowners took a nasty beating during FY12, many are asking whether that surplus, or whatever you call it, couldn't be returned to them. It is estimated that move could result in an average of $2.00 per $1,000 per home.

But, here's the rub: there are other demands surfacing for this money, as pointed out by Board Chair, Charlie Sisisky. The School Department is one example.

Selectman Dennis Giombetti recommended the Stabilization Fund, an option espoused often during Town Meeting budget sessions.

Selectman Laurie Lee then proposed that a new fund be set up that could offset future tax hikes. Moving money out of that account would not require a two-thirds vote by Town Meeting as would be the case with the Stabilization Fund.

In any event, this Fall Town Meeting will tackle the problem of spending the surplus as virtually its first order of business.

At the same time the CFO coupled her recommendation, which would be to use the surplus by also lowering the commercial rate. Selectmen last year authorized the standard 1.75 shift of the tax burden to the commercial side.

Remaining to be decided this year by the Selectmen is what went wrong previously with the assessing process in FY12, and how it will be changed so that homeowners can believe they are being treated in a consistently fair manner. The administration has engaged a consultant to work with a special committee to come up with recommendations, which should be revealed later this Fall. Xtra Xtra is planning to provide a special report on this critical matter.

To view the presentation, go to: