Saturday, April 21, 2007

Taxes Through Time

Ben Franklin once said "In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes." Then again, he also said, "For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions, even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise." Chances are pretty good that his opinions on death and taxes stayed pretty constant, though, considering he paid each when due, the faithful rebel he was.

Taxes in their various forms have long vexed the common man, and long benefited the common good, the question in marking the twain of the two very real conditions more often than not: 'when is enough enough?' This quest for parity has led to rebellions and secessions and set men to sea on dangerous voyages to freedom. But almost everywhere man has set foot, whatever dry land he claims, there is a call to pay the piper, to contribute to the society created whenever more than one gather. Taxes are the tie that binds.

Nason & Varney's 1890 Gazatteer of Massachusetts includes the property tax rates of many cities and towns profiled within its 724 pages, circa late 19th century. Although the rates aren't broken down into commercial and residential percentages in the Gazatteer, it might be interesting to compare the rates of today with the general figures it does provide.

In 1885 Springfield, there were 8,699 voters living in 6,402 homes. The property tax rate in 1888 was $13.60 per $1,000, with a city-wide valuation of $39,863,255. Springfield's current property tax rate is $16.04 per $1000, residential; and $31.91 commercial, industrial and personal. The total valuation for fiscal year 2007, including all tax categories, is $7,433,650,520. There are 39,710 residential parcels in the city.

Pittsfield's valuation in 1888 was $9,893,959. At the time the Gazatteer was compiled, most of Pittsfield was still untouched forest, with under 4,000 acres of the town's total of close to 25,000 cleared for the town's 2,480 taxable dwellings. The property tax rate in 1888 was $16.80 on each $1,000. The residential tax rate in Pittsfield for fiscal year 2006 was $15.65 per $1,000; the commercial rate was $27.66 per $1,000.

Chester, the little town nestled in the foothills of the Berkshires that enjoys the distinction of being both the hottest (107 degrees f., Aug. 2, 1975) and coldest (-35 degrees f., Jan. 12, 1981) place in the Bay State, is also becoming known as the small town with the big tax rate. Even in 1888, at $18 per $1,000, Chester's tax rate was higher than many towns and cities, a full $4.40 higher per $1,000 than Springfield's at the time. Today, Chester's property tax rate is $17.40 across the board for all categories, personal, commercial and residential, still higher than Springfield's and Pittsfield's, but not by as wide a margin as more than a century before. At the fiscal year 2006 rate, Chester is one of the most expensive places to own property in Massachusetts.

Amherst does its residents a great service by offering a pdf of property tax rates from 1895 to 2006 on its town web site. It must be a relief for residents to see that their current tax rate per $1,000 of property owned is $15.06, down from a high of $86 in 1963. In 1895, Amherst's property tax was $13.00 per $1,000.

According to the web site,, the cheapest place to own property in Massachusetts today is in the town of Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard, which has a property tax rate of $1.85 per $1,000. Think of the tax money you'd save if you snatched up an island steal like the 3 bedroom home at 22 Nickerson Farm Lane, listed for sale at $6,300,359 on That's what I call beating the tax man in style.

Document source: Library of Congress, American Memory Collection, Printed Ephemera, Boston, 1808, Digital ID: rbpe 0480140a

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