Why are Acton's property taxes so high? (part 2)

Sat, 2014-05-10

Acton Forum is doing a series of articles on Acton's property taxes. We are starting by asking "Why are Acton's property taxes so high?" We will ask the same question to various current and former town leaders to see what they say and listen to their perspective.

Part One, the introduction, is covered here: http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/acton-forum-launch-debate-propert.... This includes a chart showing how property taxes increase in spite of flat or declining home values.

First up is Clint Seward. Clint has served on Acton's Finance Committee and on the Republican Town Committee and has lived in Acton for over 25 years. He is also an editor of Acton Forum. We talked with Clint recently to get his thoughts on this question:

AF: Why are Acton's property taxes so high?

Clint Seward's edited reply:

Because there is no check and balance to the taxing authority, other than Proposition 2 1/2.

Our town leaders ask themselves, "How much can we get under Proposition 2 1/2 without an override," and that's how much we tax.

It doesn't relate to what's needed. It relates to what they'd like to have. And it always goes up every year.

Acton is not unusual in getting its 2 1/2 percent increase. It is what most towns do. But businesses cannot do that--they can't have a price increase every year.

Acton's 2020 committee had as a goal, I think it was Goal 7 in their most recent plan, to have fiscal long-term sustainability. Our town is run very well as are our schools. We have great administrators and staff.

But I believe we can have the same services or better services [ about 40% cost savings] if we take the time to reinvent Acton to have fiscal sustainability.

AF: But what is causing our taxes to keep going up?

Property taxes are paid by Acton residents and businesses. Most of the taxes fall on residences because we have so few businesses in town. Other towns have a much higher proportion of business development. So you have to ask why that is so?

I think it is because Acton's leadership has been anti-business for years. There are many examples of this, from proposals for large retailers to daycare centers to office parks. We aren't business-friendly and businesses don't want to move here because of several factors like the tax rate, zoning, and dealing with the town and the Board of Selectmen's many issues. It seems like businesses that do want to come here end up in a lawsuit with the town. It's probably just too much of a hassle to deal with all the roadblocks Acton has to business development.

So without a strong business base, much of our property taxes are from residents, which puts a large burden on them. We have a major highway through town (Route 2) so there is no reason why businesses can't locate in Acton unless they feel the town doesn't want them here.

AF: What about employee costs?

That is a huge factor, of course. Taxes are going to keep going up so long as our local leaders keep approving them, which is what they do. And then the money is there to be spent, which it is. And then next year, everything is more expensive.

I would like to see any tax increase go to the ballot box. Perhaps voters would still approve them, but perhaps not all of them.

I also think that many parents don't realize that school costs could be brought down significantly if we wanted to do so. But the unions wouldn't allow it. So I'd be in favor of starting a charter school in Acton which would provide competition and could show that we could have great teachers and motivated students at around half the cost.

One of the best performing schools in the state is a charter school on Cape Cod. Out of the top ten or twelve schools in the state, based on test scores, about half are charter schools.

This Cape charter school operates out of a former storefront. It doesn't have fancy facilities. it hires teachers at fair market value, for both union and non-union charter schools and the kids do great.

Parents and voters are told many things in Acton which are inaccurate. For example, we are told we have the highest class sizes. It doesn't matter whether you have 23 or 24 kids in a classroom. And in the elementary schools, most classes have part-time or full-time teachers' aides which don't count in determining the student-teacher ratio, and they should.

There are many ideas out there to reduce costs. We could use technology to teach some classes at home and reduce class sizes as well as costs.

There are also new ideas and technologies that could reduce many of our municipal costs as well. But there seems to be no incentive to do so if there is plenty of money to spend and no reason to find these efficiencies.

ADDENDUM

Clint added a few suggestions after we first posted this article:

1. Allow qualified kids to take courses on-line for school credit from qualified places like Kahn Academy and qualified colleges and universities. This would reduce the time in classrooms, thereby reducing student teacher ratios. Also, a kid could finish one or two years of college with a great cost savings to kids and parents. (My grandson is doing something similar in Worcester).

2. Establish a charter school in Acton for advanced kids who can learn at their own pace using qualified on-line course work with minimal teacher oversight.

3. Phase out school choice to save bussing costs. There was never a benefit demonstrated for school choice by the time kids get to Junior High when this question was asked at a School Committee meeting. What is the cost/benefit?

Part 3 (Janet Adachi): http://www.actonforum.com/story/why-are-actons-property-taxes-so-high-pa...

Part 4 (Peter Ashton): http://www.actonforum.com/story/why-are-actons-property-taxes-so-high-pa...

Part 5 (Charlie Kadlec): http://www.actonforum.com/story/why-are-actons-property-taxes-so-high-pa...

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