Local income tax plan in works

Backers cite relief for homeowners

By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Globe Correspondent / November 11, 2010

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They know it may take years, even decades, but that’s not stopping a group of Concord residents from trying to change how the town raises its taxes.

A town committee has been working on a proposal for state lawmakers that would allow communities to adopt a local income tax in addition to the property tax. The panel is also charged with reaching out to other communities to drum up support for the plan.

Pat Sinnot, a member of the Local Option Income Tax Committee, said efforts will pick up now that the election is over.

“We’ll be talking to different entities to gain support for this concept,’’ he said. “We haven’t identified a champion yet. There’s a lot of new ground being plowed here.’’

The idea, Sinnot said, is to take some of the tax burden off property owners, particularly older residents who purchased their homes when values and taxes were lower, and shift it onto residents making more money. The average value of a single-family home in Concord is $835,697, with a tax bill of $10,128.

Sinnot said Pennsylvania and Maryland are among the states that allow local income taxes.

“We’re serious about dealing with particularly high property taxes and those earning a lot would have to pay a little more,’’ he said. “House-rich people would benefit, older folks would benefit, and high earners would pick up the slack a little bit.’’

But opponents say the plan is shortsighted. Concord resident Jennifer Clarke said she opposes the idea because she doesn’t think income necessarily translates to wealth. She said an income-based plan wouldn’t take into account a person’s financial commitments, such as caring for an elderly parent, paying for education, or saving for retirement. At least with property taxes, there is a specific asset attached that can be used to garner resources, she said.

“I don’t think income is a direct indicator of an ability to pay,’’ Clarke said. “I don’t think the plan was completely thought out in terms of assets.’’

Clarke said she is all for helping seniors stay in their homes but would rather see more tax-relief programs for older residents than a plan to tax income.

The proposal was raised at Town Meeting last spring, and voters approved an article calling for Concord’s Beacon Hill delegation to file legislation that would permit the establishment of a local income tax. The decision whether to adopt the new levy would be up to each individual community, Sinnot said.

The new revenue source would be geared to allow a municipality to use property taxes for only about half of its income, he said. To make up the difference, Concord’s draft proposal calls for a 2 percent income tax, but with no increase in the total amount of taxes collected by the town.

Under the arrangement, a property-rich person with a low income would pay less and a property-rich person with a high income would pay more in local taxes, Sinnot said.

Jeffrey Wieand, chairman of Concord’s Board of Selectmen, said property taxes were developed at a time when the economy revolved around agriculture. In modern times, he said, “it may not make sense to tax people on how much property they own but how much income they have.’’

Once the town finishes its draft of the plan, it will be sent to state Representative Cory Atkins, a Concord Democrat, who would fine-tune the proposal and file it as a House bill.

While she doesn’t have much hope for the bill’s quick passage, Atkins said she is interested in listening to the pros and cons. And she also gives Concord credit for starting the discussion.

“At least they are trying and not sitting back on their hands,’’ Atkins said. “This will get the idea out there. It will have to be out there for a while though, so people can get used to the concept. It’s a little revolutionary.’’

She said other parts of the nation have adopted a similar system but it’s not something Massachusetts residents are accustomed to, and it will take more than just a group of Concord residents to make it happen.

“It’s not going anywhere unless it had a real grass-roots groundswell of support,’’ Atkins said.

Sinnot said he knows it’s going to take time for residents to warm up to the idea, and for lawmakers to back something that could be perceived as a new tax.

“It’s a taxation innovation,’’ Sinnot said.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at