Reading last week’s Salem
News editorial about the Massachusetts property tax burden, and
recent articles about the latest taxes in area communities, I
thought it might be time to remind readers about Proposition 2˝, the
ballot question passed by voters in 1980 to limit property taxes.
The editorial rightfully
states that taxpayers can only get local spending under control by
supporting candidates for local government who share that desire. It
is good to be mindful, however, that the property tax is limited by
Proposition 2˝ regardless of spending levels, so overspending means
debt and unfunded pension and health insurance liabilities, as well
as possibly poor priorities.
Taxpayers Foundation (MTF) has just released its 45th annual
municipal finance report, telling us that in fiscal year 2015, local
revenue grew 3.8 percent. This includes local aid from the state,
fees, and the auto excise tax (which is also limited by Proposition
2˝), but the main source of municipal revenue, the property tax,
which rose 4.1 percent, the largest annual increase since 2010.
I know that 4.1 percent is
bigger than 2˝ percent; taxpayers often ask me how this is possible,
and how their own property taxes can increase by more than 2˝
percent a year. The levy limit applies to the community as a whole,
and allows a factor for new growth; and Prop 2˝ allows local voters
to pass an override if they are willing to pay more for the local
budget or bonded projects. Some communities have adopted the
Community Preservation Act, which increases the property tax beyond
the basic limit.
The taxes can also reflect
some communities’ decision to tax business property at a higher rate
than residential; most of the cities do, and each year there is
negotiation over the percentages of the total property tax shifted
It’s also important to
know that increased assessments don’t increase the allowed levy;
your assessment will decide how much of the allowed taxes you will
pay, but your community doesn’t get any more spending money by
raising property values. Still, if you feel that your assessment is
too high, you can appeal it to your local assessors.
Compared to the unlimited,
uncontrolled property tax hikes of the 1970s, Massachusetts
taxpayers have lower taxes and more control. In our commonwealth as
a whole, the overall property tax burden has dropped from one of its
usual three highest in the nation; it’s no longer even in the top
10. The Washington-based Tax Foundation lists it at 18th in
“property taxes paid as a percentage of median home value for
owner-occupied homes.” Prop 2˝ should continue to protect us from
the overspending and unfunded liabilities noted by the Salem News’
editorial on the MTF report.
Chip and I went to see the
film “Spotlight,” about the Globe’s expose earlier this century of
the priest abuse scandal. The lead reporter for the Spotlight team,
Walter Robinson (Robby), played by Michael Keaton in the movie, was
the reporter assigned to our property tax limit campaign in 1980,
and I wanted to indulge in some nostalgia about that early period in
my political life.
When Citizens for Limited
collected signatures for the property tax initiative petition, I was
the secretary in the office; the one who typed it. I was not
involved in board discussions about the many complicated provisions;
and yet, when my boss quit in July, after the petition was filed to
go to the ballot, I became executive director of CLT. My job was to
sell it for a yes vote on the November ballot.
I was happy to do this:
I’m a strong believer in simplification, so I just told everyone,
“We all know property taxes are too high, and this will fix them.”
This, however, was not enough for the media that was beginning to
cover the story. It certainly was not enough for Walter Robinson,
Globe State House bureau chief.
I was terrified that, when
interviewing me, he would find out that I didn’t know what all the
legal language in the bill meant; we owed the lawyer who drafted it
money, so I had to wing it. Yes, Walter looked just as he’s
portrayed in the film by Keaton, determined to get the truth out. I
always tell the truth; the problem was, I wasn’t sure I knew it all
that well. I am pretty sure Walter picked up on this. But I think he
also sensed I wouldn’t try to mislead him. He wasn’t after the
secretary turned political activist, he wanted to tell his readers
what this proposed initiative law said.
So he and his sidekick
Larry Collins did their own research, in the kind of depth that
newspapers don’t have the time or space for today; each day brought
analysis of another section of the bill. I’d get the paper off my
front porch in the morning, memorize what they wrote on the MBTA
ride in to work, and confidently use it with the next reporter who
called. By the time the campaign heated up, I knew what I needed to
know, and with other taxpayer activists, went forth to debate the
public employee unions, League of Women Voters, municipal officials,
etc. On Nov. 4, we won.
The next day, when being
interviewed again by Robinson, I asked him: Do you think I’ll be
able to stay in charge of this issue, or will someone take it away
from me and CLT? He laughed that brief laugh of his and assured me
the media would always see me as the leader of the tax revolt. I
realized then that he had always known what an amateur I was, but as
a reporter thought this made for an interesting human-interest
aside, probably better than working with a wealthy octogenarian like
Howard Jarvis, who started the property tax revolt in California.
For my part, I knew that
if I ever actually screwed up, he as a journalist would tell the
world; and knowing this, I have trusted him as the person for whom
the word “journalist” was created. Though I think “Spotlight” as a
film did some improper composition for dramatic effect, nevertheless
it showed why newspapers are our first line of defense against those
who would break the law, hurt children, and then try to cover it up.
Walter and his team, with
their expose, saved many more children from molestation.