Talk of tax hikes in the air

Millis sets May 2 vote; Arlington, Belmont ponder

By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / April 3, 2011

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While officials in Arlington and Belmont are deliberating whether to ask voters to raise property taxes to fund municipal operations, Millis selectmen have already put a tax increase on the spring ballot.

Millis residents will vote May 2 on whether to add $1.1 million to the town’s tax levy through an override of the state’s Proposition 2 1/2 tax-limiting law. Officials in Millis say the measure, which would increase property taxes on a $338,000 home, the town’s average assessed value, by $383 a year, is needed to prevent cuts to municipal services.

Arlington and Belmont officials also say their towns likely face cutbacks without a tax increase. If selectmen decide to put override questions before residents, the votes would likely be in late May or early June.

“Our rate of expense is outpacing our rate of revenues,’’ said Christopher Smith, chairman of the Finance Committee in Millis. “When that happens, an adjustment needs to be made to one side of that equation.’’

Smith said Millis relied on federal stimulus money the last couple of years to avoid cuts, but now that the program has ended, the only way for the town to maintain services is to raise taxes. The override would be used to both close the budget gap and fund recurring capital expenses, he said.

While Millis officials have not identified what cuts would be made if taxes aren’t raised, Smith said he couldn’t foresee the town avoiding layoffs without the extra cash.

“They’ll be painful cuts,’’ Smith said.

Robert Yeager, a Millis retiree and former part-time police officer who also once ran the town’s emergency medical services department, said he expects to see a “groundswell of resistance’’ against the override.

“The private sector lets people go, closes factories. They find ways to cut back,’’ Yeager said. “But the public sector always wants to whack the taxpayer when something goes wrong.’’

In Belmont, meanwhile, a group of citizens is encouraging selectmen to put an override, of an as-yet-undetermined amount, to a vote.

Arlington officials are weighing two override options: one would raise $7.9 million, which would translate to an annual increase of roughly $560 on a property with the town’s average assessment, $479,000; the other option would seek $5.9 million, with the average annual increase estimated at $425.

Asking voters to raise property taxes is rarely an easy sell, especially during tough economic times, officials concede.

It’s unclear whether the economy has improved enough that voters would support paying more in taxes, even as communities across the state face difficulties balancing their budgets; Belmont residents turned down an override request last year.

“It is likely that override activity will increase either during the course of this year or next year,’’ said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “As, hopefully, the unemployment numbers continue to go down, local officials will see the passage of an operating override as something that will be more feasible.’’

Belmont resident Alfred Garozzo said he is against an override, and thinks that high gas prices may help shoot down a tax increase if it reaches voters.

“For some people an override means absolutely nothing, but for many people it’s tough,’’ Garozzo said. “People are on fixed incomes or their jobs don’t allow for a lot of raises.’’

Mil Pierce, cochairwoman of Building Belmont’s Future, a citizens group in favor of an override, acknowledged that the town is divided on the issue. But, she said, many people she’s spoken with were upset by cutbacks in the local schools after last year’s override was turned down.

“We’re finding the cuts from last year caught people by surprise,’’ Pierce said. “People thought it’s not going to happen, and it did.’’

Ralph Jones, chairman of the Belmont Board of Selectmen, said “it’s too early to say’’ whether the board will put an override to voters. Jones said he was waiting on a number of variables, including state local aid numbers for next fiscal year.

Jones said he couldn’t predict the outcome if the override is proposed, but he said one would have a better chance because of the lobbying effort already launched by supporters.

“To ask without a campaign is probably going to fail,’’ Jones said. “I think it’s very clear there are a number of people who will probably oppose it.’’