Amid the festive holiday celebrations, communities across the Commonwealth will host another of the season’s annual gatherings.
There will be no mistletoe or egg nog. Just the naughty list: Potholes and aging buildings in need of patching, and spiraling bills demanding attention, from ballooning pension costs to escalating health care expenses.
With that list in mind, local leaders are holding their annual tax classification hearings, mundane meetings scheduled each December to determine how much of the local tax burden each property owner must shoulder.
The amount of revenue a city or town will be collecting in property taxes is a predetermined figure, set in the spring when the next fiscal year’s budget is adopted. So in the minds of many, the tax classification hearing is merely a formality.
“When the community passes its budget, it knows how much revenue it needs to raise, so many times, the classification hearing comes too late,” said Joseph J. Bevilacqua, president and chief executive officer of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses throughout the Interstate 495-beltway, from Greater Lowell to Greater Newburyport.
Still, a handful of property owners trudged out to town halls this year to take part in the process.
Business owners pressed for tax relief. Homeowners clamored for the same.
Each year, familiar faces gather in nondescript meeting rooms and ask their elected leaders to be sensitive to their needs.
Last year, the North Andover Board of Selectmen set the tax rate for fiscal 2012 at $13.92 per $1,000 in assessed value for homeowners and $19.16 per $1,000 for owners of commercial and industrial properties.
As a result, the real estate tax bill for the average single-family home in North Andover, assessed at $456,212, was $6,350.
Communities typically issue their official tax rates in December, halfway through each fiscal year, so the first two quarterly tax bills are estimated.
The new rates are reflected in the third quarter bill, which is typically mailed out around the holidays.
To further complicate matters, North Andover recently completed a revaluation of all properties in town as mandated by the state every three years.
The selectmen are expected to vote on the rate Wednesday.
Chamber vice president Wil Carpenter, who lives in Methuen, has been going to the North Andover classification hearing for years.
“In fact, he’s been coming so long now and knows us so well, I don’t know why he doesn’t bring us coffee,” said Donald B. Stewart, 71, who has served on the North Andover Board of Selectmen 17 of the past 21 years.
North Andover has had a split tax rate since fiscal 1990, meaning that residential property is taxed at a lower rate than commercial and industrial property. For years, owners of commercial real estate have paid 1.31 times more than what they would pay if the town taxed all property at the same rate.
“We try to look at the impacts on the residential side and the business side,” Stewart said. “The 1.31 shift tends to be fair to both sides. We’ve gone as high as 1.38, but we decided that was out of whack and came back down. It’s hard to change because every move you make, it affects someone.”
North Andover held the public comment portion of its tax classification hearing Nov. 26. In anticipation of that meeting, Bevilacqua sent a letter to the 300 or so North Andover members of the Merrimack Valley chamber, encouraging them to attend the hearing and lobby for a lower rate for commercial and industrial property.
“It is vitally important that a fair and equitable decision be made regarding tax classification . . . we need your help to ensure the industrial/commercial rate does not rise in 2013, but is in fact lowered,” Bevilacqua wrote.
Similar letters went out to chamber members in Andover, Methuen, and Lawrence.
“Ultimately, local leaders go according to their gut and their sense of the town,” said Carpenter.
“A lot of the business owners are also residents, so you don’t want to hit them adversely either way. Being a business organization, our concern is business development. The more we try to help local businesses, the more we’re helping job creation.”
Selectman Richard M. Vaillancourt, a founding member and former president of the North Andover Merchants Association, said the board is “looking at the various splits, trying to determine what would be favorable to businesses and our residential taxpayers as well.”
Chief assessor Garrett Boles said if the board maintains the status quo, residential taxpayers will contribute roughly 83 percent of the town’s real estate tax revenue; owners of commercial and industrial property would contribute the remaining 17 percent.
According to Vaillancourt, even if the board keeps the split at 1.31, owners of commercial and industrial property will see “a bit of relief because of new [residential] growth.”
North Andover expects to increase its tax levy by $600,000 because of the growth, he said. In previous years, the tax burden was divided 80/20, with residential property owners contributing the larger share, Vaillancourt noted.
If history is any guide, the split will likely remain at or near 1.31.
The issue will be decided next week.
The selectmen’s meeting on the tax rate is expected to be brief. It’s the only item on the agenda.
“I expect the whole thing will take no more than 10 minutes,” said Stewart. “And if Wil doesn’t come, there probably won’t be anyone in the audience.”