Grafton Assessor Answers Questions On Property Tax Hike

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Jennifer O'Neil, Grafton's principal assessor, answers readers' questions on the property tax hike.
Jennifer O'Neil, Grafton's principal assessor, answers readers' questions on the property tax hike. Photo Credit: Richard Price

GRAFTON, Mass. — During Tuesday night’s selectmen meeting, a new property tax rate for Grafton was announced for the 2013 fiscal year: $15.55 per $1,000 of assessed value, a hike of more than 10 percent.

But what does it mean, and how did the town come to this figure? The Daily Voice sat down Thursday with Jennifer O’Neil, Grafton’s principal assessor, to ask her questions from our comment page.

Q: Massachusetts law says that Proposition 2½ puts a ceiling on property tax increases. Why are our taxes going up so much more?

A: Proposition 2½ basically increases the amount of a levy, the amount a town can raise from one year to the next. It doesn’t have to do with how much their tax bill will increase, it doesn’t have to do with how much the rate will increase, it has to do with how much the town can raise from last year to next year. That amount is 2.5 percent plus new growth, and plus any other debt that is voted to be excluded. Those three things are what make up our levy limit.

My job is to take what happened at town meeting, what budget was established, what spending has been done, and come up with a rate, after my values are adjusted. When a spending item comes up, it may be made into a warrant and the taxpayers vote on whether they want it.  I work within those parameters.

Q: There is a 47-cent increase tied into the new high school debt. How is that figured?

A: There is a debt schedule. It’s like a loan payment, a projection of what you are going to owe over time. So that debt service is different every year. It was voted [in the town meeting] as a debt exclusion so we have to use that annual amount on the schedule to determine our payment. Every year the budget would include a debt service.

Q: Over the past five years, we have seen two double-digit tax rate increases. What is the source of these big hikes?

A: In 2007, our property values went up, the tax rate came down. It’s a balance. In 2012, we had a decrease in value, the rate goes up. Our values are based on the market, so they have nothing to do with the levy. The rate is the calculation of the two.  That’s the marriage of, “Here’s what we need, here’s the value.” The rate is the calculation of that.

We’re always behind the market by two years. So while values began to drop, we were up here. Now we're chasing it down.

That’s based on our statutes. The law says we have to use a certain timeframe of the real estate market to determine this year’s value. So for the value we set for fiscal 2013, the analysis was done during calendar year 2012, and it was based on sales that occurred in 2011.  That’s our last full year of data available for us to use.

Q: Is the 10 percent property tax hike a real dollar increase? 

A: The tax rate went up 10 percent, but the property value might have gone up or down. For some taxpayers, it makes more sense to calculate the average increase from last year to this year using last year’s values and rates. 

The average tax bill will go up $280. So if you look at that number as a percentage of the property value, then it's 5 percent.

Q: So the tax rate goes up 10 percent, but as a percentage of the average property value, it’s around 5 percent?

A: Right. What does it mean to an individual taxpayer? It means their taxes went up 5 percent. Both answers are right. It depends on how you want to look at the numbers.

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Comments (8)

Looking to buy a new house. Will be looking elsewhere....Shrewsbury sounds nice.

My question would be:

Will the tax rate ever go down? Or should we expect to pay increased taxes every year?

Every time a new project gets voted on it seems like we are promised that the older ones will be paid off very soon, and the tax increase will only be "temporary", which would lead me to believe tax rates would decrease....maybe next year.....

I'll repeat myself... the projected declining tax obligations of the town were used by the Selectmen to pay for the municipal center repairs; "without raising your taxes", but they forgot to say: that your taxes are not going to go down as predicted before.

Seems like a lot of work for nothing if you are just going to back into the rate you need to get to the revenue figure you want.

I thought I read about a month or two ago about the money the trash bags where bringing in and not seeing any tax increases

They sounds just like a little Washington.....and a miniature Wall Street.

I understand the whole 'property value goes down, tax rates goes up' to maintain a certain level of tax income into the town, but it seems like a 1-2 punch to the residents of the town, where we are losing value on our property, which in some cases winds up putting the homeowner underwater with their mortgage, and now you are adding higher taxes.

Also, FY2012, my property value went up, and surprising, my taxes went up from the previous year. Obviously it is calculated on an average, but in the 2+ years I have owned my house, first year my property value went down, taxes went up, second year property value went up, taxes also increased again. This latest will the third increase.

I will say that when I have had questions, Jennifer has been very good in explaining things, so I think in light of all this new news, it warrants a call to clear up the questions I have.

Jennifer does a great job and she's right. Our tax rate is based upon our budget, our override votes and limit increases set by prop 2.5 law.
With that said though, at this October's town meeting, town meeting delivered a yes vote for a $6.8 million refurbishment project for the municipal center and boiler replacements at three schools. This vote was predicated that this years high peak tax rate will be maintained long into the future. A no vote on the municipal center would have forced the tax bill lower, now by town meeting vote we agreed to lock in, this peak tax rate for years to come. And this was all voted on before people actually could read their tax demand letters.
Many of us overspend at Christmas, but we don't spend like that all year. But here in Grafton, we just voted to lock in our historical peak tax collections for decades to come.
So sure the Selectmen can say: "No new taxes" but they forgot to say: "No future peak tax relief".
And we still have big taxes increases coming from town sewer, library and highway, in short order.