Letter to the Editor: Keeping Marion affordable

Sep 28, 2020

On more than one occasion over the past couple years in a public meeting, I referred to Marion as being in financial trouble. With balanced budgets and our A-rated debt, people ask me why. The answer is we are becoming increasingly unaffordable for many of our citizens. Not only are our real estate taxes going up, but one only has to look at the sharp increases in their recent water and sewer bills to understand my concern.

Remember, we must distinguish between our General Fund budget which is funded by real estate and excise taxes, and our Sewer and Water Enterprise Funds which are funded by fees charged to users.

Real estate tax increases support the General Fund and are capped annually by Proposition 2.5 at 2.5%. The town has existing properties paying taxes, which are called the “tax base.” New growth expands the tax base and thus grows tax revenues, in addition to the Prop 2.5 permitted increase, helping fund the inexorable raising cost of running the town.  

Marion’s problem is it has had little or no new growth. Our year around population is about the same now as it was ten years ago. This means the per capita cost per full time resident of living in Marion has climbed dramatically. The fact is Marion has not been growth friendly. We have bylaws with technical requirements impossible to meet (Open Space Development District) or that are cost prohibitive (Inclusionary Housing). A development such as Bay Club, which was a tax boon to Mattapoisett, would have been impossible in Marion.  

It is worse. We actually have been shrinking our tax base by an aggressive program to conserve land with either temporary or permanent conservation restrictions. These properties pay little or no taxes and sometimes require maintenance by the town’s Department of Public Works, costing taxpayers money.

The 2017 Master Plan reported the following Marion parcel land uses based the assessor database as follows:

37% Residential

3% Commercial and industrial

31% Tax exempt (the town, including town owned conservation land, Churches, Land Trusts, and Schools)

22% Temporary protected land (Chapter 61 Forest Tax Program, 61A, and 61B)

The report goes on to say that 4,477 acres or 49% of the town’s total 9,105 acres is protected land of which 3,091 acres are permanently protected. We succeeded in protecting almost half the land area of Marion. But here is the problem. These numbers tell us that 40% of Marion (37% residential and 3% commercial/industrial) essentially pays 100% of the cost of running the town.

From a personal perspective, it is wonderful that the town was able to protect so much land. However, when I try to answer the question: “how do we keep Marion affordable,” I conclude we need to stop shrinking our tax base and we need to encourage smart new growth rather than throw up roadblocks to growth.

At our fall Special Town Meeting on Nov. 9, there will be four articles on the Warrant submitted by the Marion Open Space Acquisition Committee requesting you, the citizens, to approve putting another 41.1 acres under conservation easements. Three of the articles are current land owners volunteering a conservation restriction on their land, something they are entitled to do. The fourth article is for the town to buy a conservation restriction on three parcels totaling 28 acres. The town will lose the tax revenue from these parcels but the cost of running the town will not change.  

As a town, we cannot stop private entities such as the Sippican Land Trust from taking more properties off the tax roll with private funding. We can discourage it and even start to ask them to make an annual payment to the town in lieu of taxes (called “PILOT”). However, the voters do have a say in what MOSAC does when it comes to using town funds to purchase land to put into conservation.  

The question the voters need to ask is whether the funds MOSAC hold (Community Preservation funds) would be better turned back to the Community Preservation Committee, so the funds can be repurposed. CPC funds are raised through a surcharge on your real estate tax bill with some limited match funding from the state.

Marion should be buying land and taking it off the tax roll only if it fills a special need or serves a strategic purpose. We sold Atlantis Drive for this reason and the town clearly needs to do an inventory of all town owned properties to determine if there are other ones it should divest.

John P. Waterman
Board of Selectmen