A case for a tax break for Wellfleet’s fulltime residents? Maybe [op-ed CCT 2 Octover 2012]

Some of my best friends are non-resident taxpayers. Really.

A proposal to give Wellfleet’s full-time residents a property tax break has stirred some of the most heated conversation heard around here in some t ime

The relief, which would be accomplished by charging non-residents and fulltime residents at different rates, giving it a bit of Robin Hood flavor, is not going down well with the non-residents. A recent selectmen’s meeting was packed with outraged secondhome owners. Unfair, they cried. It would divide the community.

Not all non-residents are rich. . .” plaintively insists a letter to a local paper. “It’s not true that second-home-owners are very wealthy people,” pleads another.

There are threats on the part of second-home owners, who own two-thirds of the houses in town and swell the population in summer, to withdraw support from local businesses and community projects.

From the tenor of the comments, this would seem for aggrieved non-residents less a matter of economics than hurt feelings. At the hearing there were comparisons to being discriminated against like minorities, treated like “second class citizens”. ( Some of our best friends are full-time residents. Why have you turned on us like this?)

It’s as if the new tax would be like forcing non-residents to display a scarlet NR.

There’s a lot of typical resort town romance behind much of this. This tax would not so much divide the community as recognize a division that exists beneath the romance. Non- residents may not all be rich, and not all full-timers are poor, but it’s a reasonable assumption that those who can afford a second home in this expensive town form on average a different economic class (use “category” if the word makes you nervous) from those who are keeping one home afloat, some of us barely.

The cluelessness about this distinction is reflected in one letter to the “Provincetown Banner” in which the writer asks why, instead of pursuing this divisive tax scheme, we don’t consider “adding a fee for renting houses during the summer.”The writer doesn’t seem to realize that this is tantamount to saying: Hey, I’ve got an idea, instead of taxing non-residents more, let’s tax residents instead; yeah, that’s the ticket. (Many locals must rent their house out in summer to make ends meet.)

A speaker gets up in a hearing and calls the tax proposal a case of taxation without representation. But of course by law all decisions, not just this one, are made exclusively by full-time residents in town meeting. Law seems to recognize that while all who come here may love the town, investment of your life, casting your lot with a town, trumps investment in a second-home mortgage.

This proposal being railed at as cruel and unusual punishment is in fact, it turns out, a widespread practice. According to selectman John Morrissey, one of the authors of the proposal, many non-resident taxpayers benefit from just such a tax break in their own full-time towns. One non-resident who happened to be sitting next to me at the hearing admitted that she gets a hefty relief as Cambridge resident. So why would she object to residents here getting the same break? “It’s different here,” was her reply.

But yes, the tax proposal seems a crude instrument. It’s true that not all full-time residents need the break and that it could work a hardship with some second-home owners. We probably should not pursue this just because other places do it or because we legally can. And it might be crucial to put some statistical underpinnings under the assumption that second- home owners and full-time resident homeowners form two clear categories.

What’s missing so far is in the debate is input from those locals who actually need this break—whether fixed-income retirees or the young-and-struggling who don’t usually show up at hearings or write letters to papers. So far most of the discussion has come from upset nonresidents. Residents who have commented publically sympathize with the non-residents.

If there are people in town besides the selectmen who proposed it who want this to happen, they better start making their voices heard.

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