Average Amherst homeowners paid a $1,826 property tax bill last month, and the same amount will be due again in January. Their counterparts in Northampton paid $1,267 and the average Hadley homeowner paid only $907.
A large part of the reason why Amherst’s taxes are higher than in neighboring communities is that we have restricted housing and commercial development that could have broadened the tax base and eased the financial pressure on homeowners. Amherst has relied on residents for 90 percent of its tax revenue, compared to 80 percent in Northampton and 65 percent in Hadley.
Decisions made by Town Meeting have played a role in this disparity. Here are some of those decisions:
- UMass hotel/conference center. In 1999, Town Meeting defeated a proposal to adjust the zoning on land between Sunderland and Montague Roads in North Amherst. One Town Meeting member feared that the development would turn into a “bar mitzvah mill.” This hotel/conference center would have increased the value of the property substantially, thus bringing in more taxes, and brought in room and meals tax revenue. It would have attracted visitors (and their dollars) to the town. Now, UMass is planning a hotel on its own land that may not be taxable.
- Gateway. In 1993, Town Meeting voted to severely restrict the development of apartments in the General Residence zone. Twenty years later, this was a major factor in the failure of a joint town-gown plan to create a mixed-use project and hotel on North Pleasant Street between downtown and UMass. This plan would have generated substantial tax revenue. Now UMass is planning on a development at the site, possibly student housing, that may not be taxable.
- Walgreen’s. In 2004, Town Meeting didn’t approve a proposal to rezone the northwest corner of the intersection of Route 9 and University Drive to accommodate a drugstore. This development would have increased tax revenues without affecting downtown.
- Professional Research Park rules. Land zoned PRP in North Amherst and East Amherst had conditions attached to it that restricted its development, such as a limit on the number of visits per day. The land was intended for businesses arising from UMass faculty research, but this vision never materialized. The PRP land in East Amherst was instead developed into offices for medical, financial and environmental services, at great cost because of the restrictions. The North Amherst land may now be used for a solar array, which is commendable, but it will bring in much less tax revenue than an office park.
And then there is Town Meeting’s vote on new elementary schools a year ago. Because of this vote, Amherst gave up $34 million in state money after an expensive 10-year planning effort. Even if you didn’t support the proposed project, a majority of the town did. Yet a minority of Town Meeting members failed to authorize the bond, thereby refusing state money that would have helped us pay for replacement of these outdated buildings. The Wildwood and Fort River school buildings will still need substantial improvements or replacement, but now it is likely that Amherst taxpayers will have to pay the entire cost, increasing taxes for years to come.
Amherst faces additional revenue challenges. More than half of our land is exempt from taxes because it’s a campus, a church or conservation area, or it pays minimal taxes as preserved farmland. And while the colleges bring us cultural and employment benefits, they also bring higher costs for police, fire and other municipal services. High-quality schools, adequate staffing and competent employees are integral to Amherst’s quality of life, but they cost money, which has to come from somewhere.
Amherst faces a financial squeeze. If we continue to pass up opportunities to get revenue from sources other than residents, it is inevitable that we will continue to have high residential taxes, tight budgets and difficulty funding major projects.
Given these challenges, we need a government that won’t make our revenue picture worse. We need a government that can deliberate year-round, with a wide range of input from residents, so it can make informed, timely decisions and be held accountable for those decisions by the whole town.
I want to be clear: in supporting the proposed new form of government, I’m supporting democracy, not development. I don’t know how a 13-member council will be respond to future development proposals. But I am confident that whatever the council decides, it will reflect the wishes of residents better than Town Meeting does. And if it doesn’t, it has a much better chance of being replaced by voters.
Amherst’s property taxes are 54th highest among the 351 Massachusetts cities and towns. We all notice the extra bite on our household budgets, but there are other, less visible costs of high taxes.
Combined with high house prices, they make it difficult for young families to afford to live here, and for some seniors on fixed income to remain here. They make it difficult to attract businesses that could provide jobs and alleviate the pressure on residential taxes. They increase social stratification, moving Amherst more toward a town of relatively wealthy people owning homes and relatively poor renters, with fewer and fewer people in the middle.
And because of our already-high taxes, it is difficult to convince voters to approve large building projects, such as the school and library projects and a new fire station, because overtaxed voters don’t want to see further increases, or just can’t afford them.
Amherst’s residential property taxes are higher than they need to be. We can do better.