Soundings: Full disclosure, and a tax satisfaction index

A patron stopped at the Edgartown Library desk last Wednesday and asked when The Martha’s Vineyard Times planned to publish its annual property tax listings. After a quick call to the Times office, our patron had her answer — it’s today, November 4 — and I had a topic for this month’s column.

In today’s world of electronic media, we have Facebook to fill with bits of information that we might not, upon reflection, want a prospective employer to see. Another great source of information that we might be uncomfortable sharing with our neighbors resides in the vast and user-friendly databases of Vision Appraisal, the firm that helps all the Island towns but Chilmark with the annual business of assessing property values so fair taxes can be levied, and our towns can be run.

In all the Island towns but Chilmark, you needn’t dress for a trip to town hall to examine the valuations of every property on your street. Simply visit the Vision Appraisal web pages for your town, and you can find all the information at 2 am, in your skivvies, if you like. In Chilmark, you’ll need to dress decently and wait for business hours to visit the assessors’ office, where the friendly staff will show you how to use the computer terminal that connects to their database.

But in this age, when other Island towns are being so radically (and appropriately) transparent about the valuations that fuel the engines of our municipal economies, Chilmark alone places physical barriers around this essential public information. The values of our private properties need to be absolutely public for a simple reason: making them so is the only way of assuring that everyone pays their fair share of the town budget. This transparency may be uncomfortable, but we all need to accept it as the light that shines in and keeps the whole process open and equitable.

The staff at the Edgartown assessors’ office tells me that back in the years before easy online access, they regularly fielded a flood of public inquiries in the days and weeks after this newspaper’s property tax edition landed in Island mailboxes. But recently, not so much —as folks learn how to explore this information for themselves, whenever they want it.

In another step that has reduced traffic into the assessors’ office, the Edgartown municipal website now includes full access to the official town tax maps. This is a much-used resource — a check last week revealed that the main map of the entire town has been downloaded nearly five thousand times. Out of curiosity, I visited the vault at town hall the other day to see how the property tax on our home has changed. Twenty-five years ago, in 1985, our home and lot were appraised at $77,000. The Edgartown tax rate was $7.03, which meant that our contribution toward all the services our town provided that year was $562.10. In 2010, our property appraisal has risen to $434,200, but the Edgartown tax rate has fallen to $3.09, third-lowest in the state. (Look up the tax rates of the 351 towns in Massachusetts, and you’ll find all six Vineyard towns in the top 25.)

Our tax bill this year is $1,372.66 — that includes a contribution of about $40 to the Community Preservation Act, which didn’t exist back in 1985. Applying a standard Consumer Price Index adjustment, it’s apparent that our taxes of 25 years ago are equivalent to about $1,140 in today’s dollars. That means that after adjusting for inflation, our Edgartown tax bill today is only 20.2 percent higher than it was 25 years ago. It’s been inching up, over the past quarter-century, at a rate of less than one percent per year.

I had to file this column before Tuesday’s mid-term election results came in, so I can’t comment here on how well all those candidates did who told us exactly what we wanted to hear — that we can continue to fight a costly war abroad, leave Medicare and Social Security intact, let the wealthiest Americans keep their Bush-era tax breaks, and still reduce the federal deficit. I can only say, to all those politicians who won election after making these promises: congratulations — and good luck keeping them.

Meanwhile, a simple equation governs my attitude toward the taxes I pay to Edgartown, to Massachusetts, and the United States of America. My pleasure in writing these checks diminishes with each mile my money travels away from home. As a resident of Edgartown, I enjoy the fruits of my tax contributions every day, in the form of robust services, clean streets, good schools, safe drinking water, and beautiful public spaces.

I find it ironic that, as citizen-legislators in our New England system of direct, town-meeting democracy, we enjoy by far the most control over those tax dollars that are already the most intelligently spent.