December 5, 2011 | last updated April 19, 2012 1:49 pm

Dueling Over Dual Tax Rates

The Great Recession - which some say hasn't really ended - drove home the importance of having a strong, thriving business base in every community to help grow jobs and economic wealth. But businesses that operate in "dual tax rate" communities in Central Massachusetts bear an added burden of higher property tax rates.

Dual tax rate communities are those that have one rate for homeowners and another (read: higher) for owners of commercial and industrial property. It's a sensitive issue in Worcester, where last year, the city council, for the first time in eight years, eschewed what would have been another annual rubber stamp for increasing the tax rate for commercial property owners.

Throughout the commonwealth this month, selectmen and city councils are going through the annual ritual of setting their rates. Larger communities with single rates, such as Leominster and Shrewsbury, have tended to stick with them as a way to attract business.

Auburn, one of 17 dual-rate communities in Central Massachusetts, took a welcome step toward fairness last month when selectmen approved a 2-percent cut in the commercial and industrial tax rate, from $24.33 per $1,000 valuation to $23.83. (The residential rate will be $16.06.) The Auburn Chamber of Commerce urged its membership to lobby for gradual reductions until the town settles on a single rate, which the chamber hopes will happen in five to seven years.

"If business continues to pull away from Auburn, it's going to cost the residents more money," Selectman Robert Grossman told in arguing for a gradual move toward one rate, which he said "can't be done overnight."

Politicians in dual-rate communities recognize which side of their bread holds the butter. It's the homeowners who pay most of the bills, send their children to the local schools and receive most of the services. But even homeowners recognize that a strong business base can be the rising tide that lifts all boats, by providing the extra money that can lead to better schools and improved municipal services. So it's good politics to make the local business climate more favorable. In Worcester, Mayor-Elect Joseph Petty cited the dual tax rate ($16.05 per $1,000 of valuation for residential properties; $34.65 for commercial and industrial) as an ongoing sore spot for businesses. And earlier this year, selectmen in Framingham, a town with the widest dual rate disparity in our region for fiscal year 2011 ($16.03 and $37.11), decided to change town managers, in large part to attract and retain businesses.

It's encouraging that many cities and towns in the region recognize how attracting and retaining business can have a positive impact on entire communities. We only hope that more dual-rate communities get that message and narrow the gap between the levies. Many of those communities had single-rate systems decades ago, and slowly widened the gap in favor of residential property holders. That ill-advised disparity should be reversed in any community that truly values commercial development.

Marching Toward Casinos

Sometimes the stands you take fall on deaf ears. Such is the case with the Massachusetts casino legislation, which is now law. We remain concerned about the potential impact of a slots parlor and three resort-style casinos that could be up and running within a few years. The next step is the naming of a five-member commission that will oversee a license-approval process and the awarding of licenses. We urge Gov. Patrick, Atty. Gen. Coakley and State Treasurer Grossman — the officials who will appoint the commissioners — to consider geography as a key criterion. This is too critical an issue for the eastern end of the state to dominate. Central Massachusetts must have its best interests represented.


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