Snyder's Sandwich: Why Is Sandwich's Tax Rate The Highest On The Cape?

Mark SnyderGENE M. MARCHAND/ENTERPRISE - Mark Snyder

A reader named Bill Daley wrote to me and said I should write about Sandwich’s high tax rate: “I believe that Sandwich has the highest tax rate on the Cape and the next ranked town is a distant second. Like you, I pay about $7,000 a year in taxes and get very little benefit (no town water, no fire hydrant , no trash pick up, and the worst Senior Center). From my own personal observations, Sandwich will continue to have a diminishing school population because young families can’t afford the taxes to live here. Over the last few years, a number of houses have turned over in my neighborhood and all are occupied by people without school age children.”

So, I did a bit of research and Mr. Daley is quite correct. Sandwich’s residential tax rate is $13.72 per thousand of valuation. The next highest are Yarmouth ($9.88) Bourne ($9.45), and Mashpee ($9.09). At the bottom are Chatham ($5.03), Truro ($6.02), Dennis ($6.09), and Orleans ($6.10). But, that only tells part of the story. Leave it to Sandwich selectman chairman Jim Pierce to give me (and you) a lesson in what’s behind the tax rate.

Why are Sandwich’s taxes the highest on the Cape? Pierce tells me, “Our family of 22,000 souls is supported on a tax base of $3.7 billion.  Mashpee supports 14,000 on $4.5 billion. Chatham supports 6,000 on $5.9 billion. Sandwich spends less per citizen on government than any neighboring town except Wareham. Spending as much per citizen as Mashpee would increase our annual budget by $10 million. A fraction of that would service the debt to replace outdated buildings.”

Pierce adds, “Early in the story it’s mentioned that you (and Mr. Daley) pay $7,000 in taxes. That says your property is assessed at half a million.  Mentioning it suggests that you may be among those lamenting, ‘I pay the highest taxes on Cape Cod.’ Well, yes, we do. But, I’ll let you in on a little secret. We all know where the Cape Cod Canal is and we have to cross a bridge to the mainland. So, geographically we live on Cape Cod. We can also look around at the well preserved historic village and recognize that historically we are on Cape Cod.  But, we should realize that we have 17 percent school-aged children versus the Cape average of right around 10 percent. It is also a fact that, at 86 percent, we have by far the highest percentage of year-round residents. Those and other factors make it plain that demographically we are not on Cape Cod. Next, we need to realize that our commercial tax base is among the lowest on Cape Cod (due to decisions made by the voters a couple decades ago). 

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As for the schools, Pierce says, “Sandwich spends less to educate each of our 3,500 school-aged children than all neighboring towns. That includes those at Upper Cape and Sturgis. The latest per pupil cost number I have is $12,100. A home has to be assessed at a little over $800,000 to cover the cost to send one student to school here for one year. At the average tax bill of $5,000, it’s going to take mom and dad a long time to pay for 13 years of public education for Johnny and Suzie. But, I have had some moms and dads tell me, ‘I get nothing for all the dollars you spend on education.’ ”

He also added that Sandwich has the lowest percentage of seasonal homes—those which don’t stress the school district. And, we have very few million dollar-plus homes.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Sandwich’s commercial tax base at nearly 13 percent is not very far out of line with other Cape towns.  Unfortunately, a little less than half of those eggs are all in one basket, the power plant. Thanks to the utility lobby, the equipment there is taxed as “personal property.” Sandwich taxes that at the same rate as residential. But, personal property depreciates.

Pierce said the long-term prospects of the power plants are good, which bodes well for Sandwich. 

He enumerates, “Aging nuclear facilities, like Pilgrim, are under pressure to go off-line. Nuclear capacity will decline faster than it can be replaced.  Coal is slowly being regulated so as to make it less competitive. The entire pie, total demand for energy, is going to grow. Renewable is not going to grow fast enough to take up the slack. That leaves relatively clean, and, in North America, relatively abundant, natural gas. Here is our ace-in-the-hole: the canal plant is one of a handful of sites already permitted for at least two, roughly $300 million each, natural gas fueled power plants. Repowering the canal plant is virtually inevitable. As an aside, a plant powered by natural gas does not require a 500-foot stack. Natural gas contains no nitrogen, no sulfur and no mercury. The chemistry is such that natural gas, CH4 (methane) plus 2O2 yields CO2 (carbon dioxide) plus 2H2O makes far more energy per ton of CO2 generated than does, coal, C plus O2. Sandwich is in a good position. Who knows whether it happens in five, 10 or 20 years? But, it will happen.”

State Representative Randy Hunt tells Snyder’s Sandwich, “The best way to understand our tax burden, is to take a look at Bourne versus Sandwich. The budgets were comparable. But, Bourne has much more business income. We have none of that in Sandwich. Yarmouth is a town that is fairly comparable. But, they have a larger commercial versus residential component. In Sandwich, 88 percent of income is generated by residential taxes, and only 12 percent by commercial taxes—and half of that is the power plant on the canal. It would take 10 Stop & Shop Plazas to replace the income generated to the town by the plant. The power plant property is mostly taxed as personal property and it depreciates. The taxes from the land are $300,000 to 400,000. The rest of the $2.5 million in taxes are from personal property taxes. The people deciding things in the 1970s saw the power plant as a cash cow, and the zoning became reflective of it, as bedroom community zoning. When I was a selectman, we had twice as many kids in our schools as Bourne did. That created a lot of spending on the school side.  About 70 percent of our tax money has been traditionally spent on the schools. Some folks have run political campaigns on lowering that to a 60-40 split. We’ve started losing students to the tune of 1,000 kids, so we thought there’d be savings on the schools, but their budget has gone up every year but one.”

I asked Rep. Hunt if there is anything more that he, the Legislature, or town officials can do to bring in more business, thereby lowering the percentage that residents pay.

He said, “One of the things we are running into is retailers taking jobs online. So, making a Mashpee Commons in Sandwich doesn’t make much sense. Virtual stores make sense to retailers. Retail developments may not even be financeable at this point. We need to look elsewhere... at science, medical, oceanographic businesses—where quality of life enters into their decisions. They’d pay decent wages. We need to look in that direction. Businesses that make stuff don’t make much sense. Trucking it elsewhere costs too much. Some places have split tax rates. We have always struggled to get businesses in. We felt doubling the commercial tax rate wouldn’t help things.”

So, what do we get for our high taxes? Look around you. Sandwich has its quaint villages, beautiful beaches, stately homes, antique shops, art galleries, museums, gardens, and the nicest people on Cape Cod. We also have responsive employees. The DPW answered their phones at all hours during the recent snowstorms, and actually sent out plows all night to areas where residents requested help. That, my readers, is just a few of the benefits of your taxes. Do you have an idea to cut costs, produce more revenue, or create jobs? Please e-mail them to me at snyderssandwich@aol.com. I’ll share the best ones!

RUMBLINGS AROUND TOWN

TOWN DEMOCRATS TO MEET: The next meeting of the Sandwich Democratic Town Committee will take place on Monday, February 17, at 7 PM in the Human Services Building at 270 Quaker Meetinghouse Road. The guest speaker will be gubernatorial candidate Juliette Kayyem. This will be followed by the Sandwich Democratic caucus on Saturday, February 22, same address at 11:30 AM. All registered Sandwich Democrats are eligible to run for a delegate seat at the June statewide convention to be held in Worcester.

VOLUNTEERS WANTED: In 2014, Sandwich will turn 375 years old (and doesn’t look a day over 350.) The Sandwich 375th Committee is planning a year-long celebration, with such great events as Daffodils Day, Talk of the Town Speakers Program, Bring Alive Sandwich History (BASH) Days, Founders Day, SeaFest, Water Street Wing Fling, Chalk Art Festival, Grand Parade, and so many more small and large surprises. Come join in on the fun as the committee plans and implements these celebratory events. Interested? Check out www.sandwich375.com and click “Join Us.”

SUPPORT YOUR TOWN:  I found a great way to support the Town of Sandwich and the Sandwich 375th Committee. Stop by Titcomb’s Bookshop at 423 Route 6A or Mary’s Bookstore at 604 Route 6A, and pick up a copy of “Sandwich 375 Years: Photos, Facts, and Fables of Cape Cod’s Oldest Town.” It’s a beautiful coffee table-sized paperback, which was put together with the help of dozens of volunteers. The cost is $35. It should be noted that Eastern Bank donated $2,500 toward the project, and the Sandwich Chamber of Commerce donated another $1,000.  I’m using my copy as a method of studying a bit of the history of my newest adopted town. There are recollections from dozens of current and former Sandwich residents, plus hundreds of current and historic photos of our beautiful town. My book is proudly on display in my office.

Mark Snyder, who has written more than 1,880 articles in newspapers and magazines, and published three books, is the CEO of PMPNetwork.com, the Internet’s entertainment superstation. Have a story idea? He can be reached by e-mail at snyderssandwich@aol.com, on Facebook (Snyder’s Stoughton), and on Twitter (MediaMan2009). Write him via snail mail at Box 639, East Sandwich.

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