AYER -- Commercial property owners and ordinary taxpayers showed up in force at a public hearing where selectmen and assessors met to consider setting the tax rate for fiscal 2014.
Selectmen voted to set a new tax rate for 2014 that would not be much more than 2013: $14.08 per $1,000 valuation for residential and $28.55 for commercial/industrial properties.
The increases add up to an overall increase in annual property taxes of $101 for residential and $187 for commercial/industrial, an equal 2.8 percent increase for both kinds of properties.
With the vote, the new rates are to be submitted to the state's Department of Revenue for approval with the first tax bills reflecting the new rates expected in the mail by the end of the month.
Selectmen Tuesday were briefed by Assessment Administrator Thomas Hogan on the different avenues they could take in creating the tax environment for the coming year, including exemptions for owners of open space as well as residential property and small businesses.
Hogan reminded selectmen the town had never adopted special discount rates for owners of open space (who could qualify for as much as 25 percent off the tax rate); owner-occupied residential property for as much as 20 percent off the tax rate; and small businesses with fewer than 10 employees with as much as 10 percent.
Should the town adopt any or all of those discounts, said Hogan, the money saved would still have to be made up somewhere to meet spending obligations in the form of the fiscal 2014 town budget approved at Town Meeting.
To avoid that, town officials have traditionally approved a dual classification rate in which residential and commercial property owners pay different rates.
In 2013 for instance, residents paid $13.63 per $1,000 valuation on their property while business owners paid $27.99.
Businesses paid 53.5 percent of the entire tax levy in 2013 as opposed to 46.5 for residences.
Commercial property owners at the meeting protested renewal of the dual classification policy, citing the town's sluggish business climate and many empty storefronts and office space.
The owners reminded selectmen that higher taxes discouraged more businesses from moving to Ayer.
This town is not surviving, said one longtime commercial-property owner.
Board member Christopher Hillman questioned how awful it is to do business in Ayer, citing tax rates in surrounding communities that were higher than those in Ayer.
Board Chairman Gary Luca said they are already committed to spending (money in the budget as approved earlier in the year by Town Meeting).
The budget for fiscal 2014 has been set at $20,867,500.
Others however, preferred to see a greater share of the tax burden remain on commercial property rather than residents, including former selectman Frank Maxant.
Also speaking for local taxpayers was resident Ernie Guertin, who spoke in defense of elderly homeowners and those on fixed incomes who did not have the regular pay increases that town employees had that would enable them to keep up with spiraling taxes.
Selectmen were also reminded that the state's Proposition 2 1/2 law did not mandate increasing taxes by that amount every year. Some years could pass without an increase.
Also at their meeting of Dec. 3, selectmen voted to set a public hearing date of Dec. 17 to review the facts relating to the condition of a structure at 37 Willard St. and to determine whether it constitutes a nuisance.
According to Luca, the house on the property was damaged by fire some years ago and boarded up ever since. Close to collapsing and with the possible presence of asbestos, it presents safety concerns for residents.
If selectmen find that the building represents a danger to the public safety, it can order its demolition or alteration.
The owner, Dennis Brennan, would then have the right to appeal the decision.