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Property tax bills soar as services fall

Levies increase despite decline in home values

Residential property taxes rose an average of $161 in cities and towns across the state in the past fiscal year, as home assessments hit historic highs despite declining market values.

The average property tax bill for a single-family home hit $3,962, up 4.2 percent from the previous year. Taxes climbed 7 percent or higher in more than 65 communities, according to data from the state Department of Revenue.

Since 2000, property taxes have shot up nearly 50 percent, from $2,679, far outpacing gains in wages, which climbed 30 percent statewide over the same period, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the past seven years, the average annual property tax hikes for homeowners have ranged from about $150 to nearly $215.

Taxpayers are being asked to pay more at a time when they are seeing local services decline, as cities and towns struggle to cover rising healthcare, utility, and pension costs. It comes at a time when the assessed value of their homes has begun to exceed the actual value, because of the decline in the housing market.

This stems from the fact that the 2007 valuation is based on a January 2006 assessment, which reflects home values in 2005, when the market was more robust.

Paul Monahan, 83, of Dedham, a grandfather of 14, said he was stunned when he saw that the tax bill for his two-story brick house on Abbott Road had grown about $1,400, to $6,800.

"It was a bolt out of the blue," said the recreational golfer, who recently almost shot his age at Norwood Country Club. "It really raises your blood pressure. . . . My wife and I were simply astounded that they would jack up our assessment to [$626,600] without even consulting us." Monahan and his wife contested the bill and got an abatement of $853 on their tax bill.

Monahan is not alone.

"I had a record number of abatement applications," said Pamela K. Davis, the administrator of assessing in Fall River, where property taxes shot up 14.1 percent.

She normally receives about 400 applications each year, but this year received about 550 - an increase of nearly 40 percent.

Statewide, property assessments for single-family homes climbed to $406,673, crossing the $400,000 barrier for the first time. Average home values have more than doubled between fiscal 2000, when they were $185,009, and fiscal 2007, which ended June 30.

Home assessments averaged $1 million-plus in eight communities, up from five last year. Chilmark, on Martha's Vineyard, topped the list, at $1.7 million. Others on the elite list were: Weston, Dover, Edgartown, and Lincoln, as well as this year's newcomers - West Tisbury, Manchester-by-the-Sea, and Wellesley.

The average increase in taxes was relatively modest, but the overall financial news is still tough to digest, said observers.

"There's a double whammy going on for homeowners," said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "There are increasing residential property taxes on the one hand and cuts in local services on the other."

"Each year, more cities and towns are facing a tighter squeeze. The implication of holding town tax rates is to broaden cuts in programs and services," resulting in layoffs of teachers and other municipal employees, said Widmer.

The assessment and tax averages included about 340 of the state's 351 communities. A number of the largest communities, including Boston, were not included because the single-family home taxes are computed differently.

According to local assessors, taxes for single-family, owneroccupied homes increased 12 percent in Boston, and between 2 percent and 3 percent in Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville, and Waltham.

Eric Taieb of Brookline found himself staring at a tab just shy of $15,000 when, months after paying $1.1 million for a home on Dean Road in 2005, the assessment was raised to $1.7 million.

"That was quite a surprise," said the real estate appraiser, who successfully sought abatements - twice - and knocked his taxes down closer to $10,000.

"There isn't much you can do about it. I think it's just grin and bear it," said Harold Galberg, 73, who lives in Dedham with his wife on Prospect Street.

His wife, Priscilla, sought an abatement and got their tax bill reduced by $236.

More than three-quarters of the state's cities and towns raised their property taxes in fiscal year 2007 to just under the limit allowed by law, according to data from the Department of Revenue.

That is a significant increase from 2000, when about half of the communities pushed close to the limit. Under Proposition 2 1/2, communities are constrained by how much they can raise property taxes. They can raise the total amount of property taxes collected by a maximum of 2.5 percent each year, plus any additional taxes stemming from new development.

Many communities had raised less than they were allowed by law. But that is changing because of financial pressure.

"Communities are essentially taxing up to the maximum level possible under Proposition 2 1/2 because they have no choice," said Geoffrey C. Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a nonprofit representing cities and towns.

Communities have been hard hit because they have received less state aid, he said. Property taxes make up an increasingly greater proportion of local revenues, climbing from about 50 percent to about 54 percent now, he said.

Robert R. Bliss, a spokesman for the Department of Revenue, said the numbers are a "strong argument" for supporting Governor Deval Patrick's Municipal Partnership Act, which is an attempt to help communities fiscally by saving money on pensions and healthcare and giving them new tools for raising revenues.

Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com.

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