While I fancy myself a wordsmith, I’ll acknowledge being a fan of Natick Director of Assessing Eric Henderson’s number-stuffed but relatively accessible annual tax classification hearing presentation (view at 36-minute mark of Natick Pegasus recording).
The goal of this hearing is getting the Select Board to vote on a “residential factor, which is a simple term for saying whether we’re going to do a single tax rate or a split tax rate,” Henderson says. This enables the Natick Assessors Office to determine how much of the tax levy will come from each class of real estate and personal property.
Natick’s total assessed property value for fiscal year 2023 is about $10.7B, up roughly 9% from the previous fiscal year. “While our commercial market has maintained very well, our residential market has been explosive, I guess is the best word,” Henderson said.
The average single-family home price has risen in value to $759K, up from from $686K, and along with that residential property owners are taking on a slightly higher percentage of the overage tax burden (roughly 81%). Note that residential apartment complexes, etc., are lumped in as a non-insignificant part of the town’s total residential property value.
The residential tax rate has actually fallen to $12.64 from $13.34 per $1,000 of property. While this is good, the average tax bill will rise because property values have increased. Natick’s average bill for a single-family home will shoot up by about $440. Come July, tack a 1% surcharge onto real estate bills (with a $100K exemption) as a result of the Community Preservation Act passing in town, and you’re talking another $60-$70 on average.
Henderson put in a plug for deferral programs available through his office to seniors and others who might struggle to pay their property taxes.
Splitting the tax rate would shrink the residential rate by $1.43 and raise the corporate rate by $6.32. Less than a third of Massachusetts communities chose to split their rates, and there is very little shifting year to year. The Select Board expressed no appetite to make a change.
Select Board member Bruce Evans said: “What’s compelling to me is it seems on the surface a good idea to have a split tax rate, but in reality it doesn’t work well with a community that has an 80% residential and now 81% [tax burden]. It shifts the burden from some residential taxpayers to commercial taxpayers, and included in that commercial taxpayer base are residential rentals, and that has a huge impact on low and middle income families who aren’t homeowners, and we have to represent those people as well as homeowners.” Small businesses would take a disproportionate hit, too, he said, as the Board voted 4-0 to keep the single rate.
Override not imminent
Not to bury the lead, but there were a couple of them during this Select Board meeting. So there.
Natick Town Administrator Jamie Errickson followed Henderson with a high-level town financial overview, building on information from the assessor that the town didn’t even spend its entire levy thanks to it being an unusual budgeting year that included the surprise ability to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to cover lost revenue during the pandemic (parking fees, etc.). As he said, the town has been learning new things about its financial situation month to month and week to week.
Natick took a conservative approach with its FY ’22 budget coming out of the heart of the pandemic and its current FY ’23 budget, and wound up underestimating some of its receipts. It also didn’t wind up spending as much on personnel as might be anticipated because qualified people were so hard to come by in light of changing workforce dynamics.
The town recently learned that its free cash (watch a Massachusetts Division of Local Services video about this concept) was higher than usual, at about $11.4M. Errickson called that “an extremely high number” for a town like Natick that’s more typically in the $4M to $6M range. While this gives the town flexibility, it also means it hasn’t been hiring some key positions needed to deliver services. Another strong free cash year is expected next year, too, he said.
Errickson’s team is still digesting the latest data and plans a more formal presentation at the start of the new year for the Board and public. Free cash is sometimes used for operational expenses, sometimes for capital spending, sometimes for stabilization.
The town is also looking at what it mean mean for the tax override discussion that the Board has been having over the past year-plus.
“The reality is that from an override perspective, having that free cash number and seeing where our local receipts are already starting to come in… we are very optimistic that in FY ’24 and for the foreseeable future we will not have to actively pursue an override,” Errickson said.
However, the town is doing an analysis to see when an override might be required, he said.
Board Chair Paul Joseph warned: “Just because we don’t need one now doesn’t mean structurally anything’s changed. It’s just circumstances because of this free cash number and some unanticipated numbers due to good conservative planning, we’re able to at least not have one next year and it gives us more time to kind of look responsibly at the future.”