Saturday, August 28, 2010

TAXES & FKINANCE: Home values down, but tax bills rise

Struggling homeowners feel the pinch as Mass. communities try to make ends meet. Despite dropping home values, Massachusetts property tax bills continued to rise last year.

Revenue-hungry cities and towns, looking for money to pay for new buildings and to maintain services, have continued to push up local taxes, often asking voters to approve property tax overrides even as real estate values drop further.

The double whammy of lower home values and higher taxes — a phenomenon that has hit Massachusetts homeowners for several years — frustrates taxpayers as they endure the rocky economy.

“There’s absolutely no way you can sell a house in Dedham for what it’s assessed at,’’ said Janet Gorman, who has lived in the town with her husband for about 30 years.

The couple, who own two single-family homes and rental property in town, sought a tax abatement on one of the rentals and got about $900 knocked off their tax bill.

“And is Dedham any different than any other town? Probably not,’’ Gorman said.

The average tax bill on a single-family home in fiscal 2010 increased about $140, a 3.3 percent increase, according to figures released this month by the state Department of Revenue. The average tax bill for a single-family home was $4,390.

The statewide home values, which have more than doubled since 2000, peaked in 2007 but dropped about 4.6 percent last year to an average of $373,702.

Taking a longer view, both taxes and home values have risen over the last decade. Since 2000, average property taxes on single-family homes in Massachusetts have increased about 64 percent.

State and local officials defend the tax increases, and lower values.

“Not only is the 3.3 increase the lowest in 20 years, but it also marks the first time in at least 20 years that the annual percentage increase has gone down for four consecutive years,’’ said Bob Bliss, spokesman for the Department of Revenue.

Local officials also point out that property assessments are a snapshot of values from a year or two ago.

Rick Henderson, the assistant director of assessing in Dedham, pointed out that assessed values for fiscal 2010 are based on a home’s worth on Jan. 1, 2009, which was determined by home sales in 2008 in that community. A home’s actual value — different from its assessed value — might have changed significantly over the last two years, he said.

“The taxes are high and I think everybody’s taxes are high,’’ said Jeanette Geller of Needham, who has filed for abatements at least three times in the 50 years she has lived in her split-level home. She recently won an abatement of nearly $400. Overall, property values dropped in 281 communities for the fiscal year that ended June 30. Hardest hit were Brockton, Revere,, Lynn, and Rockland, where values were clipped at least 14 percent.

“We still have a large number of foreclosures in the city, which impacts the values of homes,’’ when they sell at lower prices by lenders eager to get out of the real estate business, said Mayor Linda M. Balzotti of Brockton. This is the second cycle of foreclosures the city has endured, she said. The first was caused by sub-prime mortgages. This cycle largely stems from homeowners who have lost their jobs or are underemployed.

“We still haven’t quite leveled out yet, but I’m hopeful we will shortly,’’ she said.

“In Revere, things have really slowed down over the last three years,’’ said John Verrengia, an assessor. “Generally speaking the overall market has been tough.’’

Home values in 56 communities — mostly small towns in Central and Western Massachusetts — increased. Topping the list were the towns of Washington, New Ashford, and Granville, where values climbed at least 6 percent.

Values climbed more sharply in Eastern Massachusetts during the boom years of the last decade, but have tended to fall more sharply as well.

Arlington was of the few towns in Greater Boston where values increased, by 2.4 percent.

“Arlington has something for everyone, from cradle to grave,’’ said Robert Greeley, director of assessing, who pointing to the town’s location and its access to Boston, as well as a strong school system, recreational facilities, and senior center.

Greeley estimated seven out of 10 people buying are from outside of town — when homes come up for sale, which isn’t often. Individual homes go on the market every 28 years on average, he said.

The downturn has hit the rich as well. The number of towns where the average home value topped $1 million stood at 10, the same as a year ago. . But values dropped in seven of those towns. Chilmark, a small summer community on Martha’s Vineyard, had the state’s highest average value, at more than $1.8 million, down 1 percent from a year earlier.

In Weston, values slipped a fraction, but the community still had the second-highest average assessments, at $1.4 million. One home is assessed at $23.7 million, according to town records. Weston did top the list in one notable category — highest average taxes on a single-family home, at more than $15,000.

“The values here have been very stable,’’ said principal assessor Eric Josephson. Still, more than 40 people filed for property tax abatements, he said. “With the state of the economy, everyone is concerned where their money is going.’’

The town of Hancock had the state’s lowest average tax bill, at $824.

In Boston, the average assessment was $372,138, down 4.3 percent, according to the city. The average tax bill was $2,935, up 6.2 percent. However, Boston’s numbers were not included in the state data because it, along with 13 other communities, calculates data differently.

Nine towns, all west of Boston, had average taxes of more than $10,000. Not surprisingly, these towns, such as Dover and Lincoln, are among those with the highest values as well.

And nine communities had taxes jump at least 10 percent, with tax overrides or debt exclusions a major factor in most, noted the state.

Rockland was in the unenviable position of ending up among those communities with the greatest drop in valuations (14.3 percent) and highest percent increases in taxes (15.2 percent).

The tax hike was largely due to a $2.8 million override, said town administrator Allan R. Chiocca, who noted the town had the sixth-lowest average tax bills in Plymouth County, even after the override.

Overall, the town is doing well, he said. “Rockland offers a bargain to taxpayers with our low tax rate,’’ he said, pointing to major improvements in renovations and building on the high school and middle school.

Joseph Modugno, a 52-year-old English professor at North Shore Community College, fought for an abatement on his Milton two-family. He likes that the community does not have many businesses, which means more “open space and unclogged streets.’’ But he understands that a small commercial base means the tax burden falls more heavily on homeowners.

“What can I say? Who wants to pay taxes?’’ he said about filing for the abatement.

Matt Carroll Boston Globe, August 22, 2010

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