It's rare to feel like joking about taxes, so Marlborough resident Tom Lane couldn't resist the temptation after calculating that his new property-tax bill will be a mere $31 more than he paid last year.
"Gee," the retired high school principal said, chuckling, "I'm going to have to get a part-time job."
For Ronald Graham of Franklin, however, property taxes are no laughing matter. The 67-year-old metallurgical analyst and his wife, Carol, a retired nurse on disability, moved from a house in Medfield to the Oakview Ridge condominium complex seven years ago in an effort to save money. Their plan, Graham said, has been sorely undermined by rising energy costs and their skyrocketing tax bill, which has grown from about $2,000 in 2001 to $3,765 for this year.
"My salary hasn't increased anywhere near the cost of the taxes," he said.
Across Boston's western suburbs, homeowners are facing an increasing number of financial worries as the economy slows and home values dip. Yet whether rising property taxes are adding to that stress depends greatly on where they live.
A survey of the area's cities and towns found a wide disparity in the property-tax increases being levied for fiscal 2008. In Franklin, homeowners are getting socked with a Proposition 2 1/2 override-fueled 8.7 percent increase; but in Plainville, residents might be able to cover the tax increase there - $2 on average - by looking for loose change between their couch cushions.
John Robertson, the deputy legislative director for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said that while the state's property-tax system generally works well, it is also complicated and can be a source of confusion and stress for the uneducated homeowner during challenging economic times.
"When the value of people's homes is declining, people are going to feel pinched," he said. "Also, people are very anxious about what is happening in the economy at large."
Under the state's Proposition 2 1/2 law, each year cities and towns can collect the same overall amount in property taxes as they did the year before, as well as the taxes from any new development, plus an additional amount up to 2.5 percent of the previous year's total levy. In order for a community to increase taxes beyond that 2.5 percent, its voters must approve an override of Proposition 2 1/2.
The tax-limiting law, approved by the state's voters in 1980, also caps local rates at $25 per $1,000 of assessed value. But because most cities and towns are well below that figure, officials can set their tax rates to obtain additional revenue even when property values are in decline, Robertson said. Municipalities usually set their tax rates at the end of the calendar year, which is halfway through the fiscal year, then send out adjusted bills.
"For regular taxpayers, the system can be difficult to understand," he said.
Lane, a former principal at Hopkinton High School who was also an official in the Marlborough schools, said property taxes are a major concern for retirees and other people on fixed incomes. He appreciates how the city has managed to hold the line on taxes.
"As a retiree, my income is fixed," he said. "We have adjustments for cost of living, but it only amounts to about $360 a year. That puts gas in my car for, what, two months? You don't really stay even, you just get further behind, and if your property taxes keep going up, where is that money going to come from?"
Marlborough City Councilor Thomas Clancy credited the city's rapid growth and tight fiscal oversight by its Finance Committee for the good news on property taxes. The city was even headed for a surplus this fiscal year, Clancy said, but most of that will be used for snow plowing and sanding for this winter's heavier-than-usual precipitation.
Of the cities and towns surveyed, Franklin had the largest increase in its average property tax bill, driven by a $2.7 million override earmarked for the city's schools that voters approved in May. Including the override, the tax bill for the average taxpayer in Franklin rose from $3,906 in fiscal 2007, which ended on June 30, to $4,243 this year, an increase of $337, town officials said.
Graham, a former board member of the Citizens for Limited Taxation advocacy group, said he was very disappointed when the override passed, calling it a breakdown in the town's fiscal discipline.
Municipalities, he said, should "take the same approach that residents and those on fixed incomes have: adjust their expenses to live within the budgets they know they have."
Yet because he lives in a condominium, and because condo values usually fall faster than those for single-family homes in a declining market, Graham received a relative break on his tax bill this year. Although the town's tax rate increased by 15.5 percent, from $8.86 per $1,000 of assessed value to $10.23, the value of Graham's condo was reassessed downward by more than $60,000, meaning his total tax increase was a little over $30.
Still, as a condo owner, Graham said, he doesn't demand the same snow-plowing and trash-collection services that homeowners do. He also noted there are very few children in his complex who attend Franklin's schools. "The services we get, versus what we're paying to the town, are really out of proportion," he said.
In Dover, meanwhile, another override fueled a 4.5 percent increase for the average taxpayer, who is facing an annual property tax bill of $10,680 for a home worth about $1.1 million.
While the $627,000 override passed by town voters last year for a new firetruck and a new ambulance was relatively small, town officials said, other overrides that are still on the books helped boost the average tax bill by $508.
Some municipalities have tried to mitigate the effect of tax increases on homeowners by having split tax rates, one for residences and another for commercial and industrial properties. By shifting a larger share of the tax burden to businesses, the town of Bellingham held this year's residential tax increase to $102 for the average taxpayer, a rise of 2.5 percent.
In Waltham, meanwhile, businesses pay a tax rate that is more than twice the rate paid by owners of single-family homes ($23.21 per $1,000 assessed value compared with $10.55 for homeowners). The disparity, combined with a one-time infusion of money from the city's cash reserves, allowed city officials to limit the tax increase for the average homeowner to $108, a 3.3 percent increase.
Other communities, however, had less room to maneuver and ended up passing along larger increases. In Hopkinton, the town's principal assessor, Robert Bushway, said current tax bills reflect a $1.9 million override approved last year, as well as past overrides to pay for a new police station, senior center, and high school, all built within the last 10 years. The average bill is up 3.9 percent this fiscal year.
"Taxes are high, no question about it," Bushway said. "It's a tough situation. We're all tightening our belts and doing the best we can."
Globe correspondents Rachel Lebeaux and Manny Veiga contribute to this report. Ralph Ranalli can be contacted at rranalli@ globe.com.