Want to benchmark your community against its peers? Want to bring significant variances to the attention of your town’s finance committee before they vote on the budget?
Considering moving to a new town and want to see if your property taxes are going more towards providing current services or paying down costs of the past?
Do you want to see how well your town operates compared to neighboring communities?
Pioneer Institute’s new online tool, MassAnalysis, will do all that for you and much more. The website provides detailed fiscal and general information about any town or city in the commonwealth, ranging from revenue and expenditure levels to employment and crime rates.
We’ve already found really interesting facts. For instance, while Pepperell routinely spends over 60 percent of its budget on education, Chatham is spending almost as much on debt service as it does on educating its students. Meanwhile, tiny Sandisfield made debt service payments for the first time in 2013, costing only $2,100.
Want to know which town is spending more on debt service than education, and which towns have no debts? Which towns are cutting education funding and which are bolstering school funding? Which towns are continuing to increase property taxes despite stagnant or lowering property values?
Understanding your town’s position relative to the rest of the state is key to recognizing and addressing deficiencies. The ‘Peers’ feature allows you to compare a selected town to a group of peers (up to 25 similar towns) which is determined by similar values for the metrics that you decide are important. Comparisons can be made on the basis of similar tax or debt rates, population, or even public works spending.
When Erving is compared with a group of 10 peers using the default metrics, an interesting story unfolds. Comparatively high industrial taxes offset very low residential tax rates. Revenue is also much higher than most of its peers allowing for greater per capita expenditures across the board and a controlled level of debt.
Dracut (compared in the same way as Erving) demonstrates another approach. The town had the highest population of its peers, as well as the lowest expenditure per capita level. Despite these low expenditure levels Dracut’s crime, employment, and tax levels all compare favorably.
This tool is more than just a useful tool for town administrators, it can also reveal statewide trends that threaten the commonwealth more generally. Nearly every town has seen a steady decrease in state revenue levels since 2001. Additionally, many towns have watched property tax rates continuously rise despite falling property values. MassAnalysis puts these issues in the spotlight and their effects on your town can now be readily seen.
Ultimately this is only a first step. The responsibility to provide true transparency at the local level resides with your town’s leadership. MassAnalysis allows communities to benchmark themselves against their neighbors and identify problem areas. For guidance and solutions to many of these issues please see Pioneer’s Guide to Sound Fiscal Management for Municipalities.