AYER -- Commercial property owners butted heads with homeowners at Tuesday's annual tax classification hearing. Last year, selectmen yielded to a call from an audience packed with business owners to shift the burden incrementally from commercial, industrial and personal (CIP) rate payers onto residential real property owners.
This year, the board voted for a more "equitable" and even 3 percent increase for both classes.
Ayer's fiscal 2013 tax rate was set at $13.63 per thousand for residential real estate, and $27.99 per thousand dollar valuation on CIP property.
The average homeowner's annual real estate tax bill (for an average home valued at $267,700) will increase by $91. The average CIP tax bill will increase $187.
Assessing Administrator Tom Hogan said the average home value dropped 1.4 percent from fiscal 2012 (when the average home value was $271,600).
Town wide, 64 percent of the town's total real estate valuation is residential property. Conversely, homeowners bear 46.5 percent of the total tax levy and will pay 53 cents more per thousand dollars of valuation next year.
CIP property comprises 36 percent of the total town valuation, yet shoulders 53.5 percent of the town's tax levy. The CIP tax rate will increase 79 cents per thousand dollars of value next year.
The selectmen didn't opt to adopt various tax exemptions for open space preservation (forestry, farming and recreation uses), residential exemptions (popular in largely vacation and nonowner occupied communities), or special small commercial exemption status for properties valued under $1 million and employing 10 or fewer employees.
Bill Mason owns commercial property on Bishop Road and asked for consideration of the small commercial exemption which would provide meaningful tax relief. "Ten percent to me is kind of make-it or break-it at times...That equates to almost $100 a month. Right now in this economy, $100 bucks is a lot."
With the exemptions shot down, the board wrangled over how to divide or shift the town's tax levy (obligations) between the residential and CIP classes.
Tony Shaw owns the Toreku Tractor store on Littleton Road. He encouraged the selectmen to "keep the rate just a little better for the businesses."
Downtown property owner Calvin Moore said of 42 local towns, Ayer ranks fourth highest.
"Maybe those towns appreciate those businesses," said Moore. "I don't see it here."
"I don't think we should be comparing Ayer to other towns," said homeowner Ernie Guertin. "Ayer's not a rich town. It's a poor town. I don't care what anybody says ... A lot are just getting by." She added, it's not a revenue problem; it's a spending problem.
With the passage of "raise and appropriate" articles at town meeting, taxes must increase above Property 2 and a half limits to pay the obligatons. "Unfortunately, we can't do anything about that," said Selectman Gary Luca.
"We're not making any money," said downtown property owner Phil Berry. "Ayer is ancient history...The world has shifted and Ayer hasn't kept up with it. There will be more closings on Main Street and you're going to get nothing in taxes."
Selectman Pauline Conley suggested each class increase by 3 percent. "We all felt the increase last year, even more so when values went down but taxes when up."
But landscaping company owner Jim Pinard said such an adjustment amounted to just "pennies."
A life-long Ayer resident, Pinard said he pays both a commercial and residential tax bill. "We get hit either way...We have bills. We employ your families and kids. Come on, it's got to stop."
Homeowner Richard Skoczylas argued, "Now's not the time to raise taxes" with talk of the national "fiscal cliff."
"I don't believe Ayer is suffering in its ability to attract businesses," said Selectman Frank Maxant. He argued that Ayer provides 24/7 police, fire, EMT, water and sewer services that businesses can rely upon. "Those services mean something, too."
Fletcher Building owner and developer Robert France backed comments made by other landlords, "We're doing everything we can to lease these properties." Vacant storefronts affect all property values in town, he argued. "Residents ought to know that. Taxes come into play."
"I'm going to get yelled at either way," said Luca in introducing a motion to set a 3 percent average tax bill change for each tax class. "Whatever happens is going to hurt somebody. The times we're in now are horrible."
The board voted 3-1 with Maxant dissenting and selectmen Chairman Jim Fay absent.