A Taxing Situation for Businesses

Massachusetts general law allows cities and towns to tax business properties at a higher rate than residential properties even though all properties are assessed the same way, at full and fair market value. While this practice dates back to 1984, there really isn’t any factual or sound reasoning for it other than to shift some of the property-tax burden off of residents and onto business. That said, 106 of the 351 communities in Massachusetts take advantage of this option, and some of them now have a business tax rate more than twice that of residents.
One other property tax faced by businesses but not residents is a tax on ‘personal property.’ This levy is assessed on objects ranging from the dentist or hairdresser’s chair to the local variety store’s cash register, all of which is taxed at the business-tax rate.
Businesses face many other fees, taxes, and costs, ranging from their annual license to workers’ compensation insurance, unemployment insurance, and health care costs. All of these are either set or regulated on a regional or statewide basis, and therefore all would be using the same rate structure or tax table, as for unemployment insurance taxes. Let me note here that the per-employee cost of unemployment insurance is now the highest of any state. While these costs might cause an economic disadvantage to a Massachusetts business, they do not affect decisions on where to locate within the state.
Back to the local property tax that is set by an annual vote of elected officials. In the Greater Springfield area, five towns within the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield — East Longmeadow, Hampden, Longmeadow, Ludlow, and Wilbraham — all have a single rate for both business and residents. At the hearing prior to the vote, residents often speak out, as in Longmeadow this year, asking for property-tax relief, meaning a shift of more taxes onto businesses. Those boards of selectmen have consistently seen the folly in doing that and realize that any shift at all would severely burden a sector so vital to a town’s makeup.
In three other communities — Agawam, Springfield, and West Springfield — it is a different story; all three have adopted a higher business rate. One should note that these communities are surrounded by the other communities mentioned above, and many of those communities do have land zoned for business and therefore have very competitive rates.
This year, in each of the three communities with two rates, the councilors heard from the business community that this rate is important to them, especially in their efforts to survive this difficult economy, keep their doors open, and maintain jobs. As you think of these words, picture the stores that make up the fabric of the community; the barber or hairdresser you go to, where you have your car serviced, where you run to pick up that item or gift you forgot about. One other way to understand the importance of this issue is to look at the vacant storefront that once had a business in it with two to five people employed there.
At one of the hearings, it was noted that the difference in tax rates between Springfield and Ludlow, two communities joined by a very short bridge, is such that a barber on the Springfield side of the bridge would have to perform almost 200 more haircuts than his counterpart on the Ludlow side of the bridge just to pay the increased taxes due to his location. Several other examples showed that, when you break down the tax burden by the square foot of a property, those similar businesses in cities with two rates were paying more than twice as much per square foot as those in single-rate communities.
So, the question is: are local property-tax rates really important to local businesses? They certainly are when businesses make decisions about where to locate, whether to employ that extra person, often from the neighborhood, or simply whether to keep the doors open. In advocating for a fairer split of taxes, it is the business community’s hope that they can survive, prosper, and grow, and, more importantly, that other businesses will come into the city or town and expand the tax base. That way everyone, businesses and residents alike, win.

Jeffrey Ciuffreda is vice president of Government Affairs for the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield; (413) 787-1555.

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