Bedford property tax bill a shocker

BEDFORD — The Bedford Town Offices started to receive telephone calls and visits from “upset, scared” residents who this week received their fall tax bills and were “shocked” at the dramatic increase since the last bill, officials said yesterday.

Town Manager Keith Hickey said most residents received their bills in Wednesday’s mail and, though both the tax rate and property assessments had already been released, many people hadn’t done the math.

“Now that they see it in black and white, it’s a shock to them,” Hickey said.

Assessor William Ingalls said his office has not received any more calls than usual following a bill with a tax increase, only people’s emotions have risen on scale with their taxes.

“The actual volume is typical of a fall tax bill. But the people who call this year are a little more intense, because it’s more money this year,” Ingalls said.

Ingalls said the town this year had the “unfortunate combination” of having a town-wide property revaluation during the same year as a significant budgetary increase.

Bedford’s actual tax rate dropped from $20.34 per $1,000 of assessed property to $15.74 per assessed $1,000, but the assessed value of the average residential home in town rose by 67 percent in the new valuation. The total value of taxable property in town rose from $1.85 billion to $2.95 billion in the revaluation, Bedford’s first in 17 years.

Last year’s tax rate under the current valuation of the town would translate to $12.75 per assessed $1,000. The new tax rate represents an equivalent of a $2.99 increase from that figure, according to Hickey.

A home worth $200,000 under last year’s valuation would now be worth $334,000 under the new valuation, assuming it went up the average amount. At last year’s rates, the owner would have had to pay $4,068 in taxes in 2003. At this year’s rates the owner of the same home will have to pay $5,257, which represents a 29 percent tax increase.

The average selling price of a new home in Bedford is now around $375,000, Hickey and Ingalls said when the revaluation was completed in July.

The bulk of the increase, $2.12 of the tax rate, stems from money Bedford owes Manchester under a three-year tuition contract to send Bedford’s high school students to city schools. Bedford, which currently has about 850 public high school students, does not have its own high school.

Under the contract, Bedford owes Manchester $10.6 million for capital improvements to city schools in addition to tuition. Bedford owed $1.8 million for last year, the first year of the contract, and $4.4 million for each this year and next year.

The town paid Manchester last year’s $1.8 million through a debt appropriation, so taxpayers this year had to raise that amount plus this year’s $4.4 million.

The expected tax hike as a result of the capital costs was widely publicized prior to the March 2004 election, when voters rejected a joint proposal to build a high school and sign a 20-year tuition contract to spread the $10.6 payments over a decade rather than three years. Another warrant article in which voters could have decided on the 20-year contract separately from a high school was amended at a deliberative session in 2004 by a motion made by Town Councilor William Greiner to tie the two questions together.

Voters again had a chance to approve a 20-year contract with Manchester and spread the capital costs over 10 years at a June 1 petitioned special election. However, Superior Court Judge James Barry ruled that 50 percent of the town’s 13,600 registered voters had to attend for the election to be valid. About 5,000 people attended, making the election invalid, though about 92 percent voted to approve the contract.

The political group that petitioned for the special election, the Bedford Chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy, now has a pending state Supreme Court appeal seeking to overturn Judge Barry’s ruling.

Hickey said he and Ingalls announced the tax impact of the school-related votes as soon as the information was available so people could anticipate a tax hike.

“We braced for it. We tried to provide as much information in newspaper articles and TV shows as we possibly could,” Hickey said. “What we see now is people who didn’t see the importance of how the budgetary increase would impact their taxes.”

Hickey said unless a person’s property appraisal was wrong, there is little the town can do. Yet, people still go to Ingalls and the assessing office looking to lower their taxes.

“He’s had some pretty emotional people who are upset, scared. We try to work with them as best we can,” Hickey said.

The town currently has no assistance in place to help people who are unable to pay their taxes, due on Dec. 1.

“They were aware of the implication that school voting had in the long run. Now that it came to fruition with new taxes, they’re saying, ‘My assessment is too high,” Hickey said. “There’s nothing we can do, because the value is accurate.”

Of the three numbers involved in setting taxes — the tax rate, the budget and property assessment — the only one people see as flexibible is the assessment, he said.

“What we found is, with at least the majority of houses, the value is accurate,” Hickey said. “We certainly encourage them to look at the data. We obviously cannot adjust someone’s value if the data we have is accurate.”

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