By Gayle Simone

Staff Writer

AYER — During the annual tax classification hearing before selectmen, the board split on determining FY2009 tax rates.

Assessing administrator Tom Hogan began by noting that there are three options the town has never adopted:

* discounts for open space owned by private citizens

* exemptions for residential property that is the principal residence of the taxpayer

* a small business commercial exemption where the tax burden is shifted within the commercial and industrial tax class.

“It’s one of those things that sound really good,” Hogan said. “But when you get into the minutiae, it’s not really beneficial to the town as a group.”

Selectman Richard Gilles suggested the board adopt a 1.6 percent shift, raising both residential and commercial taxes.

“We have a high commercial tax rate, as compared to the region and state,” he said. “This is not good for the long-term sustainability of our local community. The proportion of taxes paid by commercial and industrial property owners is very high.”

He added, “Due to our world economic situation, people on fixed incomes are under more financial pressure and increasing tax burden has demonstrably implicit difficulties.”

The town currently has a split tax burden, at 45 percent residential and 55 percent commercial. By using the 1.6 percent shift it would represent less than a dollar increase on the current tax rate for both classes.

Residential property taxes would be raised from $9.84 to $10.16 per thousand in assessed value, while commercial and industrial taxes would be increased to $24.74 from $23.85.

“Our property values have decreased by about 1.6 percent,” Gilles added. “Therefore this change does not substantially decrease the commercial/industrial tax burden but it lowers the rate of increase.”

Selectman Gary Luca said he doesn’t agree with the tax classifications in Ayer.

“I think the split tax rate is ridiculous,” he said. “I think the burden on our commercial owners is ridiculous as well, but I think the homeowners need a break. I suggest we use the 1.64 percent shift to give the homeowners a $6 decrease in their taxes.”

Town resident Chuck Miller said, “We trade off the noise, truck traffic and sewer issues for a lower tax rate. Our economy in this town is built on the split tax rate.”

Resident Elizabeth Bodurtha said if the town were to go to a universal tax rate, it would force elderly citizens into nursing homes.

“I’m in favor of raising the residential (tax rate) but not by a lot,” she said. “We don’t want to break it; it doesn’t need to be fixed.”

Chairman Carolyn McCreary agreed.

“We, as a town, struggle to make our budget every year,” she said. “It really affects all of us.”

Selectman James Fay said businesses come to Ayer for several reasons, including the tax rate.

“I think we’re keeping the balance between residential and commercial,” he said. “Businesses come here for the water and not to mention the location; we’re right near Route 2 and (Interstate) 495.”

A graph provided by assessors showed the gradual change in tax levy percentage by residential (RES) and commercial/industrial/personal (CIP). While in FY2004, RES paid 38 percent of tax burden and CIP paid 62 percent, the split in FY2008 was 44 percent RES and 56 percent CIP.

In the end, the board approved an average 3 percent rise ($86) in tax rate for RES and 4 percent ($232) for CIP.

The board voted 4-1 to adopt the 1.6 percent shift proposed by Gilles. Luca was opposed.

The proposed tax rate now goes before the Department of Revenue for final approval.