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Selectmen Weigh Split Tax Rate

November 20, 2018

CHELMSFORD -- The business community and its supporters came out in force Monday night to lobby for maintaining the single property tax rate the town has had for 20 years.

At the annual tax classification hearing, Economic Development Commission Chairman Donald Van Dyne said he felt splitting the rate at this point would damage all of the efforts the town has put in place to attract business in the Route 129 corridor and elsewhere in Chelmsford.

“Splitting (the) rate could deflate commercial property values and further depress the levy share,” Van Dyne said. “As a consequence, all of Chelmsford tax holders will suffer.”

He said the commercial and industrial tax base is underperforming because “Chelmsford has not yet staked its position in the regional marketplace,” and maintaining the single tax rate will allow the town to keep its competitive advantage.

Splitting the rate could lead to businesses closing, laying off employees or not hiring, Van Dyne said.

Board of Selectmen Chairman Glenn Diggs pushed back, saying the split rate hasn’t appeared to damage business in other communities that have significant shifts, like Lowell and Billerica.

“When is the time to split the tax rate?” Diggs said.

Van Dyne said he believed if the commercial base was closer to 23 percent of the tax base, it would be time to have that conversation. But because it is about 18 percent and decreasing, it is not, he said.

Diggs said he believes the fact that Chelmsford’s large and expanding residential base pays for the bulk of town services is a legitimate reason for the town to adopt a split rate. He also said the Tax Classification Study Committee could not prove with data that splitting the rate is harmful to any town.

If Chelmsford decides to keep a single rate this year, the proposed fiscal 2019 tax rate would be $17.37 per $1,000 valuation, Chief Assessor Frank Reen said in his presentation. The average single family home is assessed at $428,333, making the average bill $7,440, a $265 increase from last year, he said.

The Board of Selectmen could decide to shift a portion of the tax burden to commercial and industrial. It could also institute exemptions for small commercial and residential properties. In both kinds of exemptions, there would be shifts within the tax classes.

Speakers disagreed on whether the type of tax rate in a community can draw or cause businesses to leave or decide against setting up shop in a community.

Gerald Hardy said high commercial taxes in Lowell made him forego building his business there. Instead, he said, he built it in Chelmsford and it continues today. Hardy asked that the board consider that small business owners are human beings who provide services to the community.

“These are the folks you’re going to impact,” he said. “You want to help them -- you don’t want to hinder them.”

Peter Lawlor, a former selectman whose law firm is still in town, said he supported a single rate then and now because he believes it’s fair and good for the town. He said he’s seen some weakening of the commercial base in Chelmsford, and he’d like to see it strengthened.

“I want to make companies want to come here and grow so that their valuations will alleviate the residential rate, so that the valuations of the commercial side will rise and they will take on the greater percentage,” Lawlor said.

Helen Blasioli, who served on the Tax Classification Study Committee, said the committee heard from a speaker that businesses don’t consider the tax rate.

She said she hadn’t planned to speak at the hearing but felt compelled to because she hadn’t heard from any residents who shared her viewpoint.

“I don’t understand as a resident of 20 years in this town, if 20 years ago when I moved in, they didn’t do a split tax rate because they were going to hurt the businesses, why haven’t the businesses done something in 20 years?” Blasioli said.

Max Ward said he previously worked to set up locations for a large company, and the tax rate wasn’t on the list of items to consider.

Ward, who served on a previous tax study committee in the early 2000s, said his committee recommended instituting variable rates that change every year based on the total valuations of commercial and residential properties, respectively. That idea, however, was rejected by the board that year, he said.

Glenn Thoren disputed the validity of that study, saying it was rejected due to faulty math, which Ward denied.

Selectmen continued the tax classification public hearing to its next meeting on Dec. 3, where it is expected to make its decision on whether or not to split the rate.

Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter @alanamelanson.

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