Why are Acton's property taxes so high? (Part 5)

Wed, 2014-05-14

Acton Forum recently interviewed long-time town resident Charlie Kadlec for our series on Acton's property taxes. Charlie has been a mainstay in the "anti-tax" movement, working in the past against several proposed property tax overrides and routinely speaking out at Town Meetings against what he sees as unnecessary spending. He is a leader of the Acton Voters Group and a former member of the town's Finance Committee, the Volunteer Coordinating Committee, High School Council, the Public Safety Building Committee and many other town and school task forces and advisory groups. He is also an Acton Forum editor.

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

Charlie Kadlec: Are you talking about residential taxes?

There are several reasons why Acton's residential property taxes are high. Acton gets 88% of its property taxes from the residential tax base. Acton has a very low commercial tax base. Other towns use the revenue from their commercial/industrial properties to lower the residential property tax. Second, Acton spends a very high percentage of its yearly budget on the schools, more than all comparable towns except Carlisle. Third, with very few exceptions, the Acton Leadership Group (ALG) does its yearly budget planning on the basis of "tax to the max" -- increasing the so-called "Base Levy" by 2.5%, the maximum allowed without an override.

In Acton's budgets, 75-80% of expenses go to salaries and benefits. One question is whether salaries paid in Acton (both for schools and municipal employees) are comparable to other towns. The data is difficult to get but one indication that Acton's salaries and benefits are higher than they need to be is that there is no lack of qualified applicants for every open position.

I looked at some numbers from the Department of Revenue. There are about 40 towns that I think are similar to Acton as far as size, location, good schools, wealth, etc. This comparison shows that Acton gets a lot more of its money from the tax levy compared to other towns. In this grouping, we are second highest in our education spending and fifth highest in our residential tax rate. Yet Acton is not a wealthy town, it ranks 14th, below towns such as Concord, Carlisle, Sudbury and Boxborough in per-capita income.

I think the most important comparison is the average single-family tax bill (calculated by the Department of Revenue). That is what people pay. In that, we rank 11th in this group of 41 towns, higher than Boxborough, Stow and Westford.

From all this it is clear that Acton residential taxes are high, but the taxes are what people allow them to be. There is local control. When overrides are put to the voters, they vote for them.

I talk to a lot of people who complain about their property taxes. But then they do not come to Town Meeting which is where we can do something about our tax bills. It seems to me that many people have just given up, that they feel that their vote will not make a difference. I do not agree but I understand their frustration.

Whether or not someone thinks that their taxes are too high depends on many factors. Many parents are highly motivated to come to Town meeting and vote for more money for the schools, apparently believing that more money will assure a better education in spite of a total lack of any evidence that this is true -- but that is a discussion for another time. In any case, Acton's taxes are cheaper than sending your kids to a private school.

As mentioned earlier, another problem is that we have a very small business tax base. Companies that manufacture or do research and development can move anywhere. When a company tries to move into Acton or expand, there is pushback from many town leaders and boards and the companies figure moving to Acton isn't worth the aggravation. Every battle is different, of course, but as a general rule we are not a business-friendly town and that is forcing us to rely much more on residential property taxes.

I don't know if people understand that this attitude costs us money. Boxborough gets 30% of its property tax income from businesses and Acton only 12%...and that number has been going down.

For example, why did the Avalon project end up at Nagog Park, which was meant to be an all-industrial development? Avalon has a high cost to Acton because of the kids in school, which is the opposite of commercial/industrial tax payers. The reason is that the Nagog Park could not find commercial/industrial tenants. I know that at least one company, Setra Systems, who was already located there moved out because their plans for an expansion did not receive a positive response from the Town.

Another example was the proposal by Herman Kabakoff at last year's Town Meeting to allow drive-up windows for pharmacies and other businesses. That proposal was defeated, adding to Acton's anti-business reputation.

Finally, the most important reason why our taxes are high is that our leaders think that our taxes are not high.

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

To read Part One (introduction): http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/acton-forum-launch-debate-propert...

To read Part Two (Clint Seward): http://www.actonforum.com/story/why-are-actons-property-taxes-so-high-pa...

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

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

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