When Wellfleet’s non-resident taxpayers began to organize themselves about 20 years ago, they made a big point of declaring their innocence of any ambition for a vote in local affairs.
But some, at least, of the growing demographic of second-home owners are now pushing for the vote.
The Wellfleet Non-Resident Taxpayer Association (NRTA) recently held a forum titled “Taxation Without Representation: Should Property Ownership Define Voting Rights?” The packed room included both non-residents and some residents.
The meeting amounted to a three-pronged pitch for the vote for non-residents. The first speaker, from the Wellfleet NRTA, reviewed the history of the issue, suggesting that though the law has in recent times favored a residency requirement for suffrage, there is reason to hope that may be changing.
The second speaker, representing Truro’s non-resident taxpayer group, explained that their agitation for the vote was a direct response to their town’s having passed the “residential tax exemption” (RTE) giving a break to locals. That action broke an implicit “compact” with the fulltime residents, and now, better believe it, they were seeking the vote. (However, if the town decided to play ball and rescind that unacceptable preference given to locals, they might reconsider their push for the vote.)
A third speaker, from the Provincetown non-resident group, emphasized how they too were outraged by P’town’s version of the RTE. Not only was it unfair to second-home owners (who pay most of the taxes), locals in fact do a lousy job of running the town. In addition to the differential tax he cited several other examples of local incompetence.
Non-residents cite two main grounds for giving non-residents the vote: economic and emotional. The first is an interesting twist on the old “Taxation without representation is tyranny” slogan, in which locals wanting to run our own towns are put in the position of King George tyrannizing non-residents.
The speaker from P’town noted that non-residents’ second -homes, the majority of houses in all three towns, give them “skin in the game.” But the residency requirement for voting is based on the logic that not just metaphorical but actual skin in the game—actually living in a town—is what provides the experience needed to make decisions about life in that town.
Just as important as the economic argument is the non-residents’ oft-heard plea that their love of the town, just as passionate as that of non-residents, entitles them to vote.
The meeting itself is a good illustration of the fallacy of this argument– the bitterness of the speakers toward locals’ presuming to take advantage of the RTE , the P’town speaker’s apparent contempt for local management of town affairs.
When it comes to the differential tax , the great majority of non-residents who make their feelings public just hate the idea of locals taking advantage of this perfectly legal measure to address the skewing of local life by the second-home market, even though many of them enjoy the same advantage in their own towns.
In Wellfleet, enough non-residents object to the residential tax exemption to have packed Selectboard meetings and intimidated selectmen from taking advantage of the tax break. (I also know of at least two affordable housing projects in Wellfleet being held up in court by lawsuits brought by non-residents. )
So much for the shared love and common interest of residents and non-residents.
Apparently some states have laws allowing non-residents to vote where they own a house. Massachusetts is not among them. But if that tendency does prevail, if our towns come to be run from a distance, by people who don’t live here, it will undermine something essential about our quality of life, something both logical and moral–the localness itself many of us value about our lives here.
It would be helpful to know what percentage of non-residents support the position advocated from the front of the room.