AYER -- Commercial property owners and residential taxpayers showed up in force at a public hearing where the Boards of Selectmen and Assessors met to consider setting the tax rate for fiscal 2014.
At the Dec. 3 meeting, selectmen were briefed by assessment administrator Thomas Horgan on the different avenues they could take in creating the tax environment for the coming year. Included were exemptions for owners of open space as well as residential property and small businesses.
Horgan reminded selectmen that the town had never adopted special discount rates for owners of open space (who could qualify for as much as 25 percent off the tax rate); owner-occupied residential property for as much as 20 percent; and small businesses with fewer than 10 employees with as much as 10 percent.
Should the town adopt any or all of those discounts, explained Horgan, the money saved would still have to be made up somewhere in order to meet spending obligations in the form of the fiscal 2014 town budget previously approved by town meeting.
To avoid that, town officials have traditionally approved a dual classification rate in which residential and commercial property owners pay different rates.
In 2013 for instance, residents paid $13.63 per $1,000 valuation on their property while business owners paid $27.99.
The end result was that businesses paid 53.5 percent of the entire tax levy in 2013 as opposed to 46.5 for residences.
But with the trend of the Dec. 3 hearing moving in the direction of a renewal of the dual classification policy, commercial property owners attending the meeting protested, citing the town's sluggish business climate and many empty storefronts and office space.
In particular, commercial property owners reminded selectmen that higher taxes discouraged more businesses from locating in Ayer.
"This town is not surviving," declared one long-time commercial property owner. "This town is going to fold up."
"I question how awful it is to do business in Ayer," replied board member Christopher Hillman, citing tax rates in surrounding communities that are higher than those in Ayer.
"We hear what you're saying," assured board chairman Gary Luca. "But we're already committed to spending (money in the budget as approved earlier in the year by town meeting).
The budget for fiscal 2014 has been set at $20,867,500.
Others however, preferred to see a greater share of the tax burden remain on commercial property rather than residents, including former selectman Frank Maxant.
Also speaking for local taxpayers was resident Ernie Guertin who spoke in defense of elderly homeowners and those on fixed incomes who do not have the regular pay increases that town employees have that would enable them to keep up with spiraling taxes.
Guertin's impassioned defense of helpless taxpayers included a plea to the board to remember the elderly who often suffer in silence while turning off their heat at night to save money.
"It's very upsetting," concluded Guertin of the annual tax increases.
Selectmen were also reminded that the state's Proposition 21/2 law does not mandate increasing taxes by that amount every year. Some years could pass without an increase.
Swayed by residents, selectmen in the end voted to set a new tax rate for 2014 that would not be much more than 2013: $14.08 per $1,000 valuation for residential and $28.55 for commercial/industrial property.
The increases add up to an overall increase in annual property taxes of $101 for residential and $187 for commercial/industrial, an equal 2.8 percent increase for both kinds of properties.
With the Dec. 3 vote, the new rates are to be submitted to the state's Department of Revenue for approval with the first tax bills reflecting the new rates expected in the mail by the end of the month.
Also at their meeting of Dec. 3, selectmen voted to set a public hearing date of Dec. 17 to review the facts relating to the condition of a structure located at 37 Willard St. and to determine whether it constitutes a "nuisance."
According to Luca, the house on the property was damaged by fire some years ago and boarded up ever since. Close to collapsing and with the possible presence of asbestos, it presents genuine safety concerns for people in the neighborhood.
If selectmen find that the building represents a danger to public safety, it can order its demolition or alteration.
The owner would then have the right to appeal the decision.