Columnist Mary Wentworth: Economic growth panacea for tax problems?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Having received the approval of Town Meeting, the Amherst Select Board in September 1992 appointed a group of seven Amherst residents to study the impact of housing on the town’s tax rate. The charge from the Select Board also asked the task force for a policy recommendation pursuant to the completion of its work.

To some of us, the name “Grow Daisies” was substituted for the more formal title of “Report of the Housing Impact Study Task Force.” John P. Eysenbach, who chaired the group, recommended this approach when the report was submitted to the Select Board.

The group modeled their work after a format developed by the American Farmland Trust that helped people determine the cost of community services. The group began compiling data from interviews with a broad cross section of people involved in using as well as dispensing the town’s resources. A compilation of Amherst housing ranged from single-family homes to University of Massachusetts dorms.

Since most of the money that the town accrues for its expenses comes from taxing property, it wasn’t difficult to obtain an accurate figure. Added to tax revenues was the state’s formula-based distribution of lottery sales to all municipalities.

The town’s expenses come under the following categories: general government, public safety (police, firefighters and EMS), environment, human services, cultural and recreational services, special services, elementary schools, regional schools and the library.

What the spreadsheets show is that for nearly half of the 19 housing categories, there was a deficit in 1992 between the cost of the services that the town provided to the residents of these housing units and the tax revenue collected by the town from those same properties. The totals left the town with a deficit of $3 million.

This study is important for several reasons. It shows there is a gap in the information that Amherst residents receive regarding new projects. It is usually impressed upon us how much we need the tax revenues that will flow into the town’s coffers, but almost nothing is said about the costs for services that new projects will require.

Think about this as well: No money was spent on hiring a pricey consultant from out of town to fulfill the charge of the Select Board. A group of Amherst citizens did the work, digging up the data, interviewing knowledgeable people, and finding the methodology to make the results accessible to ordinary citizens.

Furthermore, the phrase “growing daisies” symbolizes the important role that vacant land can play in our local economy. One of the myths about growth is that vacant land is just going to waste. As Donella Meadows pointed out in her book, “The Global Citizen,” “Studies from all over show that open land pays far more — often twice as much — in property taxes than it costs in services. Cows don’t put their kids in school; trees don’t put potholes in the road. Open land absorbs floods, recharges aquifers, cleans the air, harbors wildlife, and measurably increases the value of nearby property.”

It will help combat climate change. It doesn’t have to have a building on it to be useful.

This study was done in the early ‘90s. If it were done today, the numbers, obviously, would be different, but would the results be pretty much the same?

We need to be more skeptical about accepting the idea that economic growth is the panacea for our tax problems. We have to ask ourselves, “How much growth do we want?”

Whose interests are we subsidizing when we have a deficit in the first place and then it has to be made up in part from our rainy-day funds?

Mary L. Wentworth, of Amherst, is a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5.