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AYER — The Ayer Board of Selectmen were lobbied in large numbers last week by Ayer businessmen who argued that the tax burden ought to shift in favor of businesses over residents. And then the earth moved in that direction, dramatically shifting the 2012 tax burden onto homeowners on a split 3-2 vote.

There was but one audience member speaking out against the move in favor of the homeowner — Ayer Finance Committee member Michael Pattenden.

After the Dec. 6 public hearing, buzz mounted that there was a special postcard sent to more than 200 Ayer business owners, alerting them to the public hearing. No such mailer was sent to homeowners and there was no discussion of the mailer at the selectmen’s meeting. Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand said he did not have advance knowledge of the mailer, commenting on Monday, “I was not happy being blind-sighted about this.”

The mass mailing was orchestrated by Ayer Economic Developer David Maher. The mailer was prepared on town time, using the Town Hall postage meter and town materials.

Maher said it’s his job as Economic Development director to interface directly with the commercial taxpayers (who pay the bulk of the commercial, industrial, and personal- or CIP taxes). Maher said business owners loudly asked him last year to keep them informed of matters that affect their businesses like the tax rate and the ongoing talk of a stormwater utility fee.

“They made the comment, quiet vociferously, that they never hear what’s going on,” said Maher. “We never know about any taxes’ and alot of us live here but don’t live in town. So I send out stuff for everything to commercial businesses and the Ayer Business Alliance.” Maher noted that unless a business owner is otherwise a town resident and voter, they are also not entitled to speak to Town Meeting voters without a vote of the assembly.

Maher said some business men approached him directly about the tax hearing, and that the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce alerted its membership about the hearing. Board of Assessor’s meetings, where deliberations form early iterations of the tax rate, occur during the daytime, generally at 3 p.m. “Obviously it would be hard for a business person to come,” said Maher. So the rate setting hearing conducted by the selectmen was “their one shot.”

Maher stressed that the postcard was neutrally worded, and alerted the businessmen, “If you’re interested in coming, fine. If not, fine. If you’ve got something to say, come and say it.”

Maher said as an Economic Development Director, “The public is not as much my responsibility unless it’s as a Community Development Director. I don’t really have access to be able to tell everybody.”

Maher said he understands Pontbriand’s concerns in the wake of the mailer and hearing turn out that did not provide the same notice to residential rate payers. “Yes, I can see that obviously. But because they (businessmen) did show up, it was an issue. I thought there’d be homeowners there. My intent wasn’t to foster some grassroots Occupy Town Hall. It was just to do my job, and let the businesses know.”

Maher said he didn’t mail to all 300-plus businesses, but sent just 205 mailers with a “simple 24 cent stamp,” opting against mailing larger corporations who might “waste” the postcard as junk mail and for whom the tax rate shift may not have been as dire. Maher said he maintained the list of who he sent the cards to, which included “People who’d have a genuine interest in the taxes of the town and their business.”

Maher said lost in the discussion was attention to keeping businesses located in town. “If we start losing businesses, then that amount will go down and then the burden returns to the residents.” Maher said there’s 2,700,000 square feet of CIP space in town. “That’s not Devens but it’s a lot of the big buildings on Devens. And we’ve got almost 80 percent of it filled. Business retention is a big buy word. Every little bit helps. If nothing happened, at least they know that someone cared to let them know.”

Of residential rate payers, Maher said, “Maybe it will stimulate the public to come next time. I’d have thought there’d have been more than enough residents there.”

“It demonstrates poor judgment”

Pontbriand said the tax rate was signed off on following the hearing by all but one selectmen (Selectman Pauline Conley did not sign off on the rate setting vote) and sent to the Department of Revenue on Wednesday for certification in time for the 2012 property tax bills to issue in January. Those first quarter “actual” property tax bills are due February 1, 2012.

Pontbriand said the public hearing was otherwise properly posted with a notice hung both at Town Hall and published twice in the Ayer Public Spirit newspaper. But Pontbriand wasn’t pleased with the mass mailing which he learned about the next morning — Wednesday, Dec. 7.

Pontbriand agreed the content of the postcards wasn’t the problem, as they were neutrally word. Rather it was the targeting of one tax class over another that was troubling.

Pontbriand said he met with Maher Thursday morning. “I asked him why he did it and he stated to me that part of his job is to work for the business community.”

“I said I was concerned about how it would be perceived,” said Pontbriand, who said he cold “see how someone would read it.”

Pontbriand said he had posed the question to Ayer’s town attorneys for advice on how to handle the matter, as Maher’s time, and town postage and supplies were used. “My main concern and question is the appropriate use of funds to do this.”

Pontbriand said he’d requested that Maher’s public communications pass through his office from this point forward before they’re released. We’ll deal accordingly moving forward.”

“We had a long conversation on perception and communications,” said Pontbriand. “I was not happy being blind-sided about this.”

Pontbriand said Maher does not work just for Ayer businesses. “I made it very clear to him that he, myself and all employees work for the Town of Ayer. That’s what the paycheck says but more importantly that’s where all the funds come from. I think if anything, it demonstrates poor judgment.”

Dan Bertrand, director of Communications and Policy at the Department of Revenue Division of Local Services, said DORs concern ends as long as the tax hearing was otherwise legally noticed in conformance with the Open Meeting Law. “Beyond that, there’s no purview at the DOR.”

The present 2011 tax rate is $12.09 per thousand dollars valuation for residential, and $26.82 per thousand dollars of CIP property (a CIP “shift factor” of 1.55). The 1.55 shift factor reflects a tax burden split where the total expense of running town government is borne 45 percent by residential and 55 percent by CIP taxpayers.

For 2012, the shift changed to 1.50, shifting the burden to 46.5 percent for residential and 53.5 percent for CIP taxpayers. The residential tax rate will increase to $13.10 per thousand dollars of valuation and climb less precipitously for CIP taxpayers to $27.20 per thousand. Had the 1.55 shift stuck, the residential rate would have been $12.60/thousand in 2012, with a CIP rate of $28.10/thousand).

The tax bill will jump 8 percent for the average Ayer home assessed at $271,600, up $265). Had the old 1.55 shift factor been voted by the selectmen, the tax bill for the average Ayer homeowner would have climbed just $129, or 3.9 percent.

The average commercial/industrial tax bill will still increase, but by only 1 percent (a $66 increase for the median commercial/industrial property). Had the prior shift factor been adopted, the median commercial/industrial tax bill would have climbed $284, or 4.3 percent.

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