The highlight of last week's summer town meeting, sponsored by the town's summer residents advisory committee, was a report on the group's opposition to the residential tax exemption. Allowed as a local option under state law, the exemption gives a community the option to lower property taxes for year-round residents. As the summer residents' presentation noted, this shifts a portion of the tax burden onto non-resident property owners. The exemption has been brought to town meeting twice in recent years – and defeated both times – as means to help struggling year-round residents, especially families, afford to stay in town.
A majority of the select board have opposed the exemption in the past, although members have agreed to consider it once again, according to chair Jeffrey Dykens. The summer residents' opposition leans heavily on the question of fairness. Non-residents already pay about 65 percent of the town's property taxes, they say, and it would not be equitable to ask them to pay a larger share, considering that they use fewer services than year-round residents. That latter argument is a bit of a straw man, however, since the reason most Cape towns have relatively large fire, police and other municipal departments is to help protect the large number of seasonal homes and residents. A town like Chatham, with 6,000 year-round residents, would otherwise not need municipal departments of the current size.
Barnstable, Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet and Nantucket are among the Massachusetts towns that have adopted the residential tax exemption. With the current housing crisis impacting all Cape towns, as well as other high costs of living driven at least in part by summer residents and visitors, Harwich, Orleans and Brewster should join Chatham and, really, all Cape towns in adopting the residential property tax exemption. Each town can choose the exemption percentage; it ranges from 20 to 25 percent among Cape towns, as low as 18 percent in Tisbury and as high as 35 percent in Boston. Savings would depend on property value, but could range from $500 to a few thousand dollars a year, not an insignificant amount for a family trying to make ends meet. Non-residents would see increases in the hundreds of dollars range, more, obviously for higher end properties. Some year-round residents with high value properties could also see an increase. That's one of the tradeoffs, but from our point of view, the benefits greatly outweigh the negatives.
By giving year-round residents a tax break and helping them to stay in their homes and be part of diverse communities, non-resident owners are helping themselves, too, by ensuring a workforce to help provide services and a vibrant community that maintains the high property values they enjoy. We expect summer residents to oppose a residential tax exemption, but we ask them to put aside financial considerations and consider the overall good of the community.