Troy’s Take: Taxation Without Representation

Troy ClarksonAmy Rader Photographer - Troy Clarkson

I had the pleasure of spending a weekend in Philadelphia recently with Donna and nephews Jack and William Perkins. We, of course, scaled the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (better known as the “Rocky” steps) and had a cheese steak (William had three), but our focus was to soak in the rich and plentiful history that pervades this city, truly America’s cradle of liberty. 

Here in Massachusetts, our ethnocentricity sometimes clouds our perspective. Although our locale is indeed the place where it all began, it all took shape in Philadelphia; a monument on virtually every corner reminds visitors of that. As we visited Constitution Hall, the former Pennsylvania State House, where our nascent national government operated until early in the 19th century, the themes and images of democracy created a palpable sense of history and purpose. Sharing that experience with my young nephews—showing and teaching them the power of the written word and the significance of cohesive and organized protest—was a moving experience.

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One tour guide, as we visited the room where the Declaration of Independence was debated, adjusted and enacted, noted that those of us from the Boston area might have a particular affinity for one of the seminal events leading up to that historic signing: a vehement objection to the tyranny of taxation without representation, known today as the Boston Tea Party. 

As I contemplated the magnitude of the lessons from our weekend, my thoughts turned, as they always do, to Falmouth. I pondered the concept of taxation without representation and the specific events that led the Sons of Liberty to hurl a tea shipment into Boston Harbor in December of 1773. My thoughts then turned to some Falmouthites facing a similar plight: the homeowners in Ballymeade. The nicely trimmed lawns and beautiful homes in this neighborhood mask the unfortunate fact that these taxpayers are facing a clear case of being taxed without a reciprocal representation.

As I contemplated their dilemma, I recalled a meeting back in the late 1990s when I, then chairman of the board of selectmen, sat with other local appointed and elected officials and my longtime friend John Taylor, representing the Ballymeade Property Owners’ Association. The BPOA’s beef was that its members had been charged a 25 percent surcharge on their water bills for the costs of the town delivering public water, as the challenges with water pressure in this neighborhood necessitated the operation of a private pump station. At the meeting, I and others committed to solving the water pressure problem and acknowledged that providing clean water was, and is, among the most important responsibilities of local government.

Although the town’s logic, including my own, in charging the fee was a bit shaky then, at least we were providing water for the fee being charged and made a commitment to make things better. The residents were being taxed through their increased fees, but town hall was providing them with adequate representation through a commitment to improve the water delivery and an unequivocal acknowledgment of the responsibility to do so. 

These many years later, some of those concepts have been obscured through a series of complicating bureaucratic events that belie the simple mandate that these residents be represented for the taxation they pay.  The recent conciliatory vote of the selectmen to resolve the ongoing dispute by paying the Ballymeade homeowners a settlement of $165,000 was an important step forward in fulfilling the commitments we made at that meeting more than a dozen years ago.

However, that peacemaking vote was followed by a wallop to the wallet of those same taxpayers: the town then approved the assessment of a betterment fee for more than twice the settlement amount, seemingly meeting their open hand of cooperation with a counter punch of a clearly clenched fist of condemnation. The notion that this betterment fee was necessary now—right on the heels of a settlement that cannot be fully paid until Town Meeting approves it in November, speaks solely to the specious logic of the town and a clear breach of trust. 

The work related to the assessment was completed years ago. The assessment can wait until Town Meeting—who approved it in the first place—has a chance to weigh in. To assess these homeowners further fees, after they already paid more than $300 related to the 25 percent surcharge John Taylor and I chatted about years ago, reminds me of the lessons we learned in Philadelphia. 

If the Ballymeade owners decide to head over to Falmouth Harbor and dump some clam broth into the water as a protest of their taxation without representation, I might just join them.

(Mr. Clarkson may be contacted at votetroy99@aol.com and followed on Twitter @TroyClarkson59.)

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