Two and a half decades of Prop. 2 1/2

Two and a half decades of Prop. 2 1/2

Souce: Massachusetts Municipal Association (www.mma.org); state Department of Revenue, Division of Local Services (www.dls.state.ma.us)

This year marks the silver anniversary of Proposition 2½, the property tax cap passed by voters in 1980. Prop. 2½ essentially limits municipal governments to a 2.5 percent increase in assessed property taxes each year, but officials can bust this cap if – and it’s an increasingly big if – they can get a majority of voters to agree.

Successful overrides, which put additional funds in municipal operating budgets (as distinct from debt exclusions, by which voters approve tax hikes that finance capital projects, such as new schools and firehouses), have been prevalent in high-income suburbs to the west of Boston, along with parts of the north and south shores, Pioneer Valley and the Cape and Islands. Outside of urban corridors, practically every community west of Worcester passed overrides during the first 15 years of the law, but voters in Berkshire and Franklin counties seem to have taken a tougher line on property taxes recently. Large cities have always been cool toward property tax hikes: Successful overrides in Cambridge, Springfield, and Worcester came many years ago, and officials in Boston, Lowell, and New Bedford have never dared to put an override on the ballot.

The three biggest successful overrides so far have been for “general operating expenditures.” Voters in Newton narrowly approved $11.5 million in spending in 2002; Cambridge voters approved $10.2 million in 1982; and Framingham voters approved $7.2 million in 2002. (Newton and Cambridge, appropriately, were among the handful of communities to vote against Prop. 2½ itself in 1980.) The biggest defeats have come in Needham ($17.3 million for “infrastructure maintenance” in 2002), Springfield ($10 million for public safety, health, and schools in 1989), and Plymouth ($7.0 million in general expenditures in 1988).

But in smaller communities, especially on Cape Cod and the islands, Prop. 2½ has resulted in dozens of votes on tiny, narrowly defined spending requests. Chatham, Tisbury, and West Tisbury have each put more than 90 override questions to voters since the cap was enacted. In all three communities, about half the overrides have passed, suggesting a deliberate evenhandedness on the part of voters. Did Chatham voters approve $2,600 for Christmas lights in 1989 because they could reject $2,600 for portable radios for the fire department on the same ballot?

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The most consistently override-resistant community has been Athol (zero approvals out of 20 requests), followed by Freetown and Raynham (both with 0-19 records), while the most tax-hike tolerant voters seem to be in Orleans (six requests, all successful).

Additional research by Reshma Trenchil.