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Taxes, Conservation Easements, Farms, And Other Thoughts Of Spring

Taxes, conservation easements, farms, and other thoughts of spring

By John Piotti

March 5, 2013

Town Meetings are just around the corner. This means that we are in another season where much of the local talk is about property taxes.

In my community, the town clerk just finalized that part of the town report that lists everyone who hasn’t yet paid this year’s taxes—perhaps a mark of shame for a few, but good reading for many more. (I suspect it’s the section of the report that gets read most closely.)  Meanwhile, the local budget committee has been going over the numbers that will ultimately lead to next year’s tax rate—assuming that voters at Town Meeting don’t wander too far afield.  (Going through this process reminds us how local taxes relate so directly to what we do in town—every road we plow, every dog we impound, every dollar we give to Little League.)

With Town Meetings come municipal elections—and most candidates for selectmen offer strong and predictable views on property taxes: they don’t like them.

Nor—it seems—does anyone else.

Sure, most people recognize the need for plowing roads and educating children. But even folks who support taxes for worthy public purposes don’t want to pay any more than necessary. And we all reserve the right to complain.

When a sitting selectman talks about property taxes it is usually to complain about “others.”  The argument generally goes something like this: “We’re tight with every dollar we spend here in town; the problem is that school costs keep going up and the state keeps jerking us around.”

There’s a fair amount of truth in this. Most towns in our region do indeed run lean—though there have also been instances where funds were not well spent. And at the state level, Maine has often raised local costs, both directly and by reducing funding or shifting costs to school districts. Many local leaders are particularly worried right now, since the Governor’s proposed budget shifts teacher pension costs to school districts and eliminates municipal revenue sharing.

Yet this year I’m hearing complaints not just about state cutbacks, but also about non-profit organizations and conserved lands.

The complaint about non-profits is nothing new, though I’m now hearing it more frequently and fervently. The gripe is that these groups get away without paying property taxes, which pushes taxes up for the rest of us.  Though it is true that some non-profits (notably colleges and hospitals) own real estate on which they do not pay property taxes, such institutions often support the local economy in other ways that far outweigh any tax benefits they receive.  In addition, many such institutions contribute “payments in lieu of taxes” to help cover the cost of services that a host community provides. (As outlined below, covering the cost of services is something that most residential development does not do. So if a nonprofit is doing that, it is already carrying more of its own weight than many residents, even before broader economic benefits are added in.)

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