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The recent decision of the Supreme Judicial Court confirming the constitutionality of the law of 18911 imposing a tax upon legacies and successions, and the large financial results which have accrued to the State of New York through the imposition of a tax upon direct as well as collateral inheritances and bequests, point out a way by which the burden of our judicial expenditures can be diminished in amount as well as distributed more equally than at present without any increase, in the amount of annual taxation. The law of 1891 should be aniended upon the lines of the New York statute by including direct inheritances, devises, and bequests within its operation; and the taxes thus collected should either be paid directly to the treasurers of the several counties having jurisdiction over the estates, or to the Commonwealth. In the former case, the city of Boston would get the full benefit of the tax upon the estates of persons resident within its limits; and in the latter case the Commonwealth itself should assume the judicial expenditures of all the county courts, defraying them so far as possible from the tax on legacies and successions. If the latter plan is adopted, the city of Boston will no longer be forced to contribute an undue proportion of the judicial expenses of the Common- ` wealth, and on either plan the burden of taxation for county purposes to the people as a whole will be materially lightened.
SECTION 5. The Tax Limit. The tax limit imposed in 1885 permits the city, with the additional $425,000 allowed in 1887, to raise all the money needed for the current expenses of the Government, if administered with economy and vigilance. I have seen no reason to alter the opinion expressed to the Legislature in 1890,3 and frequently since, that no change should be made in the tax limit. Much can be said in favor of abolishing the limit altogether, but nothing at all, in my judgment, in support of a higher one. An increase of a dollar or a dollar and a half in the
1 St. 1891, ch. 425.
2 I have at various times petitioned the Legislature for the passage of such a law, but the opposition to it has hitherto been sufficient to defeat the application.
"In an argument before the Committee on Cities February 27, 1890.
thousand would give the city from $800,000 to $1,200,000 per annum more to expend than can now be raised; but there is no real necessity for the increase in municipal service that such a sum would pay for, and there is every reason to fear that most of it would be frittered away on increases in the number and salaries of the city employees, or on unnecessary local improvements, and that in the end no benefit would be received commensurate with the increase in taxation.
Something might be said in favor of adding a dollar to the tax rate for the purpose of increasing the sinking-fund for loans outside the debt limit, or for the purpose of borrowing so much less; but no good reason can, in my opinion, be assigned for increasing the present burden of annual taxation for general municipal purposes.
SECTION 6. Valuations. The valuation of real estate for purposes of taxation is one of the most important duties of the municipality, and is in charge of a board of nine principal assessors, supported by seventy-two assistants. This work is judicial in its character, and therefore removed from the control of the Mayor, who would not be justified in forcing upon the assessors his personal views of the manner in which they should perform their statutory duties.
I am of the opinion, frequently expressed, that there is a systematic undervaluation of suburban and vacant lands, which results in a higher tax rate than ought to be declared, and in an inequitable distribution of the burdens of taxation.
Real estate in the business portions of the city, in the older residential parts, on the Back Bay, at the South End, and in Charlestown is assessed at from 60 to 90 per cent. of its value, while vacant, unimproved estates in the suburbs are assessed at from 25 to 60 per cent. of their market value. This, of course, is an opinion merely; but it is an opinion founded on special opportunities, both private and official, for drawing a correct conclusion.
And not only are suburban valuations low in comparison with those placed on other real estate, but they are relatively
lower to-day than in the past; that is, there is a greater difference between the assessed and real values of this class of property than there was fifteen or even ten years ago.
The amounts paid for our park lands between 1877 and 1884 exceeded the assessors' valuation by 183 per cent.; the amounts paid between 1885 and 1890 exceeded the valuation by 663 per cent. ; and the excess for the last five years (1890-1894) has been 88-22 per cent.1 Lands recently purchased by the New York, New Haven, & Hartford Railroad Company have cost 77 per cent. above the assessors' valuations. Nine estates near each other were offered to the city in 1893, in response to advertisements for the department of Public Grounds, at from 47 to 497 per cent. above the assessed values; and the recent attempt to procure a site for a trade school has brought forth a similar result. A like experience constantly attends the efforts of the School Committee and other departments to obtain suburban sites.
It should be borne in mind that since 1890 the taxpayer has been protected against overvaluations by chapter 127 of the acts of that year, providing for appeals from the assessors of taxes to the Superior Court. Prior to the passage of this law the property owner had no redress from the assessors' figures, except an appeal to the County Commissioners, or, in the case of Boston, to the Board of Street Commissioners. He has now an appeal to the courts of law, with all that that implies. It is a significant fact that no such appeals have ever been taken from the valuations of our This is proof that they are not excessive; and
1 The exact figures are:
EXPENDITURES AND REVenues.
the figures given tend to show that assessed values are, in fact, much lower than they should be-particularly in the case of vacant suburban lands.
The question is not so much one of absolute or total valuations, for a low valuation and a high tax rate are the same thing in the end as a high valuation and a low tax rate, provided all property is valued on the same basis. The real question is equality of valuation, and in this respect it is submitted that the owners of undeveloped suburban property in this city enjoy an unfair advantage over the rest of the community.
The discrimination in favor of vacant unimproved land. works injustice to all who pay taxes on improved real estate or personalty, and also to those who are assessed a poll-tax only, for they pay substantially in full. Farms and country estates should be assessed as available for building lots if they have in fact a market value for that purpose. To value such lands solely with reference to their present use is a violation of the sworn duty of the assessors to make "a fair cash valuation of all the estate, real and personal, subject to taxation." 1
The last man in the community whom the tax-gatherer should favor is the owner of vacant land who makes no improvements at his own expense, but allows his property to lie idle, preventing all the while its development by others, in the hope of reaping in the end an increment in value unearned by him and due exclusively to the enterprise and activity of others, and the growth of population. The speculator in vacant lands is everywhere a hindrance to prosperity, but he is the special curse of this community, where he not only controls the course of legislation2 and the action of the City Council, but also the assessment of taxes.
The general tax laws of the State are as injurious to the prosperity of the city to-day as Mayor Quincy considered them in 1828; the double taxation of many classes of personal estate is driving wealth and business away more rapidly 1 Public Statutes, ch. 11, § 45. 2 See chapter 8, § 3.
than ever; but the heaviest and most inequitable of all the burdens that the general taxpayer in this community has to bear are the obligation to pay the entire cost of streets laid out and built in the suburban sections principally for the benefit of individual land-owners, and the failure of the assessors to place a "fair cash valuation" upon suburban land.