In a prior column, I wrote about Groundhog Day and how in the city of Worcester it seems to happen every year around November or December — and linger on for a while — consisting of:
1) The city manager submits a budget every spring for the fiscal year starting July 1.
2) The City Council never cuts anything and approves the budget as submitted.
3) The usual cast of characters call the Jordan Levy Show and read the same speech that they read the year before at City Council meeting.
4) In November/December, the council approves as favorable a residential rate as possible to fund that budget that had no cuts.
5) After the meeting everyone talks about how we need to close the gap between the commercial and residential tax rate.
Recently things have gone a little differently.
The council actually ended up cutting $3.5 million from the tax levy the city manager submitted, but ended with the same result. Now we’re just waiting for the usual “make Worcester business-friendly” discussions to fortify the commercial tax base, but nothing will be accomplished.
My long-held hope is that instead of the same old, same old, the council would begin work on the next budget — fiscal 2018 — now, and not wait to make reactionary tax decisions next November/December. Maybe even tell the city manager they want a budget based on a tax levy number that they, themselves, recommend.
I have some good news: It may actually happen this year if our City Council votes in favor of an order that Councilor at-large Mike Gaffney has submitted for the next City Council meeting [page 4 of the link].
12e. Request City Manager consider not raising property taxes on residents and businesses with the next budget.
Very busy! https://t.co/dcRIMaZDNY
— Michael Gaffney (@mgaffneycc) January 5, 2017
For consideration, the past three years of Worcester tax levy:
FY ’17 (ends June 30): $282.2 million
FY ’16: $274.9 million
FY ’15: $261.9 million
If Councilor Gaffney’s order is approved, the manager would have to return a budget in the spring based on this year’s $282.2 million levy. (In fact the order may have to be amended to focus on the tax levy, as the tax rate is dependent on assessed property values and the annual November/December vote.)
The point of the order, however, is that the city not increase the burden on taxpayers, which I support.
Will this be easy for City Manager Ed Augustus? Of course not. He will have to make some tough decisions, while the City Council will also have to figure out what its priorities really are. This will not be easy, but is this not the job we have hired or elected — and paid — them to do?
Businesses and households have to make these tough decisions every day. We cannot just spend money for whatever we want, then bill someone else to send us money to cover our budget. Should not the city of Worcester have to run their business like you and I do?
Don’t forget: These elected officials work for us.
If you feel that we need to hold the tax levy where it is, you need to reach out to the City Council and tell your district councilor, or your favorite at-large representative, to support this order.
More important, watch their votes — and hold them accountable at election time.
By not allowing growth in the budget, we would be able to address the elephant in the room: the dual property tax rate system. Some time ago, I read this in an “As I See It” commentary by Dana Levenson:
“If collapsing the dual tax rate into a single one, by definition, also means that residents pay a higher property tax over time while the commercial rate is held steady or moves down, the only way to accomplish the single rate with a minimum of pain for residents is for there to be no growth in the City of Worcester’s budget.”
The biggest problem for Worcester is that the commercial tax base is eroding, and in the long run the budget burden will completely fall on the back of the residential property owner. The only solution is to end this dual rate system. Merely talking about making Worcester “business-friendly” will not get it done.
A level tax levy, a no-growth budget, and eventually closing the tax rate gap is the only way to go. It will cost the residential taxpayer more in the short run, but it will benefit us all in the long run by saving our commercial tax base.
Bill Randell served on a PILOT task force for then-Mayor Tim Murray and is a current member of the Holden Town Meeting Finance Committee. Bill started and operates the local news website Worcester Herald, and is the owner and author of FlyORH, a website dedicated to Worcester Airport. He is also president and founder of Worcester-based businesses Advantage Benefits and ABG Real Estate.