Hidden in the Massachusetts General Laws lurks a property tax limit law known as Proposition 2 ½ which is projected to have dramatic consequences in Western Massachusetts, set to impact Longmeadow’s way of life even more than it’s neighboring towns. “Should we ever hit that 2.5% cap? My statement is Longmeadow is not going to be the Longmeadow as you know it today,” says Mr. Paul Pasterczyk, Longmeadow’s Finance Director. Selectboard Member Mr. Mark Gold says, “when you hit that tax ceiling, all hell breaks loose. You can’t spend anything. All our salaries, all our staff. At some point, you have to adjust the size of the workforce. Things that are, I use the word: draconian.” State Senator Eric Lesser says, “you could literally have situations where buildings are shut down, [there are] abrupt layoffs, and that will really do quite a lot of damage to the community.” His colleague in the State House, Representative Brian Ashe says, “you don’t get trash service, you don’t get your sidewalk fixed. People get laid off in the schools.” “If we can’t raise $1.3 million in a certain year, that’s going to mean bodies. I don’t care if that’s 15 bodies. There’s going to be a police officer there, potentially could be a firefighter, it could be administrative, it can be Department of Public Works (DPW) and there’s going to be school employees laid off,” says Mr. Pasterczyk. Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations at Longmeadow Public Schools Mr. Thomas Mazza says, “you would have to reduce staffing, eliminate offerings and programs, which again translates usually into positions.” Our elected officials and experts on the subject all agree that come 2024, Longmeadow’s way of life could be seriously impacted if something isn’t done, and while everyone accuses the tax law of being ridiculous, the subject really brings to light structural tax unfairness, and poor economic growth when compared to Eastern Massachusetts, which seems to have become out of touch with its western counterpart.
The Massachusetts statute known as Proposition 2 ½ limits a municipality’s property tax rate. The name of the proposition refers to the 2.5% levy limit, defining the maximum that property tax can be incremented by annually, and the 2.5% ceiling, defining the maximum that property tax can be, as 2.5% of a community’s personal property. “Prop. 2 ½ is a double-edged sword,” says Mr. Pasterczyk. The law was lobbied for successfully in 1980 by the anti-tax group Citizens for Limited Taxation. It was intended to protect residents from receiving sudden increase in taxes and from unreasonably high taxes. Mr. Mazza explains “if property values go up, it increases the [levy ceiling]” and a town can provide for increasing expenses. The problem occurs when property values don’t go up enough to account for increasing expenses of a municipality, and this is where we find much of Western Mass in.
Mr. Pasterczyk regards the levy ceiling’s 2.5% as an arbitrary number, “my position is that property values do not necessarily represent people’s ability to pay.” Out of 351 communities in Massachusetts, Longmeadow comes in 31st in per capita income of $53,767. But unlike the Boston area where property value has been increasing dramatically, Longmeadow has seen only minuscule increases, or the value has remained fairly stagnant. While for most of Longmeadow’s history, taxes as a percentage of assessed value were fairly below the 2.5% mark, in 2016 and 2018 the number jumped up to 2.25%, treading close to the levy ceiling and put the issue on Mr. Pasterczyk’s and Longmeadow official’s “radar screen. [We realized] if the market value of all the homes in town, keep on going down, we are going to be in trouble.” As it turned out, real estate took an upward turn and began increasing, but not to the levels that would sustain a safe distance from the levy ceiling. Mr. Mazza says that sustained increases in the market are not probable as eventually the market would adjust itself. “Property values basically everywhere in Western Mass are at best kind of keeping level, but in a lot of places are going down. So what happens is if the values are not going up, you have to raise the rate every year to collect the same amount of money,” explains Sen. Lesser. Current estimates predict Longmeadow to hit the levy ceiling come 2024 but this could be sooner if a recession were to come along.
The people who have [fewer] resources are actually paying more than the people who have more resourcesState Senator Lesser
“Why Prop. 2 ½ is so important to Longmeadow is [because] over 80% of our revenue is generated from property taxes,” says Mr. Pasterczyk. While our property values don’t go up at the same rate as Eastern Mass’s, our town’s “costs go up at the same rate that costs go up anywhere,” says Sen. Lesser, citing “healthcare costs for town employees, collective bargaining negotiations with, police, fire, teachers, etc. That’s the same everywhere.” An especially good example is town employees’ collective bargaining agreements –a promise that salary will go up to reward seniority and to account for inflation. Selectboard member Mr. Gold who heads the Task Ceiling Task Force in Longmeadow says “our budget is like 80% or even 82% people and people related. We’re in the business of serving people with people. [At the end of the day] you still need somebody to drive the trucks to plow the roads. Policemen to answer your calls. And teachers to teach in the school system.” This is why meeting the 2.5% levy ceiling would mean positions. Mr. Gold says “we might be in the middle of a labor contract with our Teacher’s union with DPW clerical union. And then we have a whole bunch of police and the fire department, and those all call for [a] 2.5% raise. Does that mean we have 2.5% [fewer] teachers, 2.5% [fewer] firefighters, [or] 2.5% [fewer] police officers?”
Longmeadow’s problem is finding a way to increase property value. “What’s different for us is there’s very limited space to build or to expand, which means that the tax base isn’t growing so more is being expected of the same static base. The other issue is, our economy is not growing very fast. So even if there was available land, there’s limited demand to build new units, to build renovations, to build new factories, to create all types of development that would add new taxpayers to the rolls.” says Sen. Lesser. “We’re close to [our saturation limit]. I mean, you can only pay so much for a house in Longmeadow based on the economy out here,” says his colleague State Representative Ashe.
“If we were to hit the 2.5% ceiling, in essence, what it does is prevent the town from raising about $1.2 million or $1.3 million in revenue every year, which are then used to offset the costs of the budgets for both the school and the town,” says Mr. Mazza, “we will be faced with some very difficult budget choices because we wouldn’t have the same resources available to us to fund that budget. You would be forced to have conversations about programs and offerings that we currently provide.” Mr. O’Connell, a teacher at Longmeadow High School and Longmeadow Education Association’s (LEA) Vice President who serves as a representative on the Tax Ceiling Task Force says, “people come to Longmeadow for the schools; negatively impacting the schools has a negative impact upon the town as a whole.” Mr. Pasterczyk says, “[schools] would try to be spared at first, but eventually, it’s going to cut into that.” He predicts we’ll see the school’s impacted by the second year if Longmeadow hits the ceiling.
The town doesn’t have much money to just cut from the budget if needed “we’re pretty darn efficient” says Mr. Gold. “It’s going to be tough to not impact everybody. Ideally, not every budget line will get equal [cuts]. You [may] say, well, we don’t use the DPW, but I gotta tell you if we cut the DPW and nobody else, you’ll have an awful lot more snow days.” Mr. O’Connell says “We haven’t reached the panic mode level, so it’s hard to predict, nor do I want to play the role of Tiresias and predict doom and gloom future. Unless the levy [ceiling] changes, they have to just cut services.” Mr. O’Connell predicts larger class sizes at our schools.
To delay hitting the levy ceiling, Longmeadow is looking for new streams of revenue and ways to minimize expenses. “Two weeks ago we bought the street lights, so we’re immediately saving that money,” says Mr. Gold. Up until this year, Longmeadow paid $300,000 a year for renting street lights from Eversource. “We’re going to buy LED lights. We’re going to retrofit all of our lights in town. That’ll save us some another $200,000 in electric cost,” says Mr. Gold. Some Selectboard members are also looking into selling town land around the water tower to developers. Other ideas that have been floated around is putting up a solar farm at the old DPW lot and to set up a town WiFi system. “The point I’m trying to make is that it’s going to take a series of items. We don’t have a blockbuster that says we’re set for the next 15 years. We need a series of things that cut our expenses by $300,000 or $400,000 and add revenue,” says Mr. Gold.
There is also a concept known as regionalization, that can help drive down cost while keeping the same services. Regionalization is partnering with other communities to provide the same service. An example is our new 911 dispatch system. This year when you call 911 the call goes to a dispatch center in Chicopee where the dispatcher then sends out our local police. Upgrading our current dispatch system would have cost the town a lot of money, but by partnering with Chicopee which already has upgraded facilities, Longmeadow can get features like texts to 911 without the added cost, while also minimizing the costs associated with having our own dispatchers. Other ideas floated around have been regionalizing the Health Board with East Longmeadow or a regionalized Veteran’s Agency. Whereas the new dispatch center happens to cut significant costs, most regionalization is done for quality, not costs. “There’s twice as much area to cover, so you don’t save a lot of money,” says Mr. Gold, “I’m in favor of selective regionalization where it makes sense.”
Another example of regionalization is the Minnechaug Regional School District. Mr. Gold’s take is that this won’t reduce many costs but could compromise on quality, “you’re not going to have [fewer] principals [or fewer] teachers. You cut out a couple of administrators. In the overall scheme of things, that’s not our major costs. Ultimately we can do all of that stuff, but without legislative aid, all we’re doing is picking the 2024 deadline and may be pushing it out to 2027 or 2028. Our job [as legislators, representatives, and officials] isn’t to kick the can down the road till 2027, our job is to see a problem and address it now.”
There is currently no method for municipalities to increase the levy ceiling, so Longmeadow’s quickest fix seems to be changing the state law to allow for override exclusions. “What we need is the state legislature to give us the authority to vote on it locally, it’s unlikely they’re going to do it statewide vote,” says Mr. Gold. “Now that doesn’t mean we’re gonna be able to raise our taxes any more than we can raise them now year over year, we’re still limited to [a] 2.5% [levy limit], but what it means is you don’t get this tax cap, which could trigger some difficult times for towns like Longmeadow.” Rep. Ashe and Sen. Lesser both say they would be supportive of changing the state law if it comes to it, “I would be in favor. We’d go to town meeting, they would vote on it. If it’s the will of the people that they want to do that? Absolutely. We would file legislation and granted everything goes well. It would pass and Longmeadow would then be permitted to raise their [ceiling],” says Rep. Ashe. But ultimately, this isn’t the fix both legislators think will be permanent. “That’s fine and good, but that doesn’t solve the problem. That’s just kind of really a bandaid until we can figure [this] out,” says Rep. Ashe.
“Because I mean let’s face [it], people get fed up with getting taxed a lot,” he says, “tax, I mean it’s a bad word.” As Sen. Lesser correctly notes, in 2019 Longmeadow’s property tax was the highest in the state at $24.09 per $1,000 of property. Eight out of ten of the most taxed communities are in Western Mass. This is in contrast with Weston MA, the richest community in Massachusetts and ninth most affluent in the entire US, residents there pay $12.59 per $1,000 of property –that’s 275 spots below Longmeadow. “You already have a very bad status quo. Which [are] communities that are farther from Boston, already have slower economic growth, and weaker economies, have much higher tax rates. That’s very regressive,” says Sen. Lesser, “the people who have [fewer] resources are actually paying more than the people who have more resources.” Raising the levy ceiling doesn’t positively impact anyone’s life, it just allows the town to function, keeping streets plowed, schools working, and police responding. “Just raising the levy ceiling allows a system to continue that is structurally unfair to an entire region,” says Sen. Lesser.
He says, “my personal feeling is the way to solve this in a way that helps everyone is by changing the economy so that we’re creating jobs, attracting people, and raising [property] values.” Sen. Lesser represents nine communities which include some of the highest per capita income areas like suburban Longmeadow and some of the lowest like the city of Springfield (which is second to last out of Massachusetts’ 351 communities in per capita income). Sen. Lesser likes to call his district “a microcosm of the country as a whole,” there are “different communities, they’re very diverse in every way, and have a very diverse economy as well. But one thing, I would say, that actually unites the whole area is a growing feeling that people’s kids and grandkids are not going to have the same opportunities that they had. This is manifesting itself in a lot of ways, but one way, in particular, this is demonstrating itself, is the very unfair way property taxes are being applied in Massachusetts and in particular for Western Mass.” Rep. Ashe echoes this sentiment, “[Springfield] was a great city. There was a nightlife. You get downtown, all the stores were open, you go shopping, restaurants. Tons of bars, and then it’s slowly faded and they went away one by one.” “Longmeadow needs Springfield,” says Sen. Lesser, “Longmeadow needs Springfield to be strong, to be creating jobs, to be a magnet. That’s something that I really emphasize in my work, that Longmeadow needs a strong Springfield and Springfield needs a strong Longmeadow because strong growing cities also have strong vibrant suburbs.”
“Springfield never reinvented itself like a lot of cities. So it’s Springfield, as well as the surrounding communities’ job, to bring up new ideas,” says Rep. Ashe, “MGM is a good example. You know [there are] jobs.” He also points to the money Longmeadow receives from MGM annually, “I think it’s helping.” Mr. Gold disagrees, “that’s not economic redevelopment. It didn’t do it. It didn’t give that step increase to Western Mass. It created jobs, but they’re not high level, high paying, moving into Longmeadow type jobs.” As for the money Longmeadow receives from MGM, Mr. Mazza says the “casino money is marked for specific improvements related to traffic and public safety.”
Attracting new big business is as Rep. Ashe sees it “[my] job, the mayor’s job and [other] legislators’ jobs.” Rep. Ashe is currently Vice Chairman of Export and Development, “this is an opportunity to talk with other countries, to talk with other places and show them the benefit of doing business with Massachusetts and specifically Western Massachusetts. A lot of it is finding out what that country does or what businesses they have and how we might either copy what they do, enhance something that we already do, or how we might trade,” and convince them to do business in Western Mass.
Another metric both legislators see as worrying is few students remain in Western Mass. “You look at the students that come out of here and what some of them can do and unfortunately a great deal of them have to move to other cities, states, or countries because the opportunities are there,” says Rep. Ashe. Sen. Lesser who is a 2003 LHS Alum says, “I can count on one hand how many students from my graduating class are still in Longmeadow. This is a symptom of a much broader cause, which is an economy that is vacuuming jobs and opportunity out of Western Mass and hyper concentrating it in a handful of zip codes in the Boston area.”
To combat this Sen. Lesser has promoted investing in remote working. “Western Mass is an ideal location, we are a beautiful place to live, we have great schools, we have a great quality of life and we’re right in between two of the hottest, most dynamic economic centers on earth. We’re just North of New York City [and] just west of Boston. We have a really good airport 20 minutes south of Longmeadow that can take you anywhere in the country.” He supports initiatives like the coworking space at the Young Mansion, “allowing people to stay local while being connected to jobs and economic opportunities in other areas is important.”
Ultimately though there’s a consensus, “we need a stronger Western Mass economy. Something that provides hundreds of thousands of jobs so that everybody’s house goes up in value,” says Mr. Gold. “You do that, you create a dynamic situation where there’s investment, there’s new opportunity, [and] there’s new factories opening, now you’re adding to the tax rolls, you’re growing the pie. [This] will allow each family to have to shoulder less of a burden,” says Sen. Lesser. “I think property values in Longmeadow are sleepers. Something’s going to come along [and] it’s going to start turning our property values around. [The] problem is it will come along in the next three to five years,” says Mr. Gold.
For over 20 years now there’s been a proposal on the table that seemingly could solve all of Western Mass’ and Boston’s problems, a high-speed rail link connecting Springfield and Boston. “The single biggest challenge that Boston has is housing has become completely unaffordable. There’s rampant gentrification. Nobody can afford to live in Boston anymore because of the tech boom and because of the booming economy,” says Sen. Lesser. While overall Boston’s economy is a good thing, Boston has become a victim of its success. In 2019, Boston took the award for the most congested US city. “Boston’s biggest problem is that they’ve saturated themselves,” says Rep. Ashe.
Both legislators say this would be a win for both Boston and Western Mass. “Your city doesn’t have to be as crowded. People can move out and still use the city much more, people can come here for entertainment, come here for a variety of things,” says Rep. Ashe. He imagines a situation “where people could live out here, get a home at half the value and double their salary” while still commuting in a reasonable amount of time. Both legislators have to often commute to Boston for their jobs at the State House. Rep. Ashe calls his commute, “dead time.” He points out that on a train one could sleep or be productive. “You’re much more efficient, you’re not as stressed [due to] driving, and there are [fewer] cars on the road,” he says.
The rail from Boston would also connect to the Northeast Corridor that connects Springfield to New York City today creating an inland route from Boston to NYC. Anyone heading Boston to NYC would be brought through Springfield. “It creates Springfield as the crossroads of Western New England, which it had been for generations. That’s why George Washington put the armory here because we were right on the [vertical] route from New York up the Connecticut River to Montreal and [horizontally] along the Boston post road from Boston to Albany. That went away when interstates came,” says Sen. Lesser.
If there’s any time to do this project “it would be now” says Rep. Ashe. “You’re going to need federal money and the timing couldn’t be better to have Congressman Neil as a chairman of Ways and Means. Things like that only happen once in a lifetime,” he says. Sen. Lesser says, “there has definitely been pushback. The reason there’s been pushback is because it’s a big ambitious project, and anytime you have a big ambitious project, there’s going to be doubts.” Massachusetts faces a structural challenge because the population, the economy, and the political center are all in one place. Sen. Lesser notes this is unusual, think of New York with its economic center in NYC and political in Albany, Illinois with Chicago and Springfield, or even Connecticut with New Haven and Hartford. Western Mass is only about 13% of our state’s population. “For Western Mass to get investment, [for us] to get attention, you have to work a hundred times [harder] to get the same attention,” says Sen. Lesser.
Having a big infrastructure project that largely benefits one part of Massachusetts but is funded by the whole state isn’t without precedent. Sen. Lesser notes the “the big dig” -when the state spent $20 billion to put in an elevated highway in Boston in the 1990s. “Western Mass helped pay for that even though most people in Western Mass will never benefit from it,” he says. The MBTA and the Boston Subway system also received funding from Western Mass. “Western Mass needs investment and attention just like Eastern Mass gets,” says Sen. Lesser. Rep. Ashe believes his experience as a long-time legislator and his relationships with Boston’s legislators will help. “I’ve had many of them out here for different events,” he says, “so they have more of an appreciation for the drive that we do.” Ultimately, Sen. Lesser says, “if you have the rail, we would get access to that red hot economy. It would pull more of those jobs, it would pull more of that opportunity here. It would also allow more families, more young people to stay here, which would increase demand for homes, grow the tax base, and allow us to collect the revenue we need for police, fire, schools, and parks, without putting more and more burdens on the people who are already here.”
He says, “[we] could raise the levy [ceiling] tomorrow, but in three [to] four years we’re going to be back with the request again because this is a symptom of a deeper structural economic challenge that we need to get a handle on.” That said, if Longmeadow is to escape the catastrophe that 2024 is set to be, local action needs to be taken quickly, whether that’s cutting costs, increasing revenue, or creating a local override. As Mr. Gold says, “[there are] three speeds of things being accomplished: there’s slow, slower and town government,” Longmeadow can only hope we figure this out in time.