Letter: Amherst’s Retroactive Tax Assessments An Unpleasant Surprise For Taxpayers


Photo: Nick Youngson/pix4free. Creative Commons.

The following letter was sent to the Amherst Town Council on February 16, 2023

The recent hike in Amherst real property tax assessments makes evident a disturbing Town practice that is unfair to Amherst property tax payers. The Town designates the property tax for the 1st and 2nd quarters of the fiscal year, 1 July to 30 June, as a “Preliminary Tax” only.  If, at the end of the calendar year, the Town raises the property tax assessments, and thus the property taxes, the Town then; 

(1)  applies the tax increase to the entire fiscal year, thus retroactively increasing the property tax for the 1st and 2nd quarters, and

(2)  loads the full amount of the increase for the entire fiscal year onto the 3rd and 4th quarter tax statements. 

For example, a property tax increase of $800, charged in equal amounts throughout the fiscal year, would show an additional $200 on each quarterly tax statement.

In Amherst, however, the 1st and 2nd quarter property tax statements show no increase for this $800. That is because it has not yet been increased. Then, the 3rd and 4th quarter statements show an additional $400 each. 

What is worse, the sole notice that the Town gives property owners is the Town’s 3rd and 4th quarter tax statements themselves. This January, it was a most unpleasant surprise.

The Town of Amherst should synchronize its property tax assessments with its fiscal year. If it cannot do that, it should at least make assessment-based tax increases effective as of the date of assessment, instead of retroactively.  

It’s a matter of basic fairness to the people who live in, and who foot the bills for, this Town.

Sarah McKee

Sarah McKee has lived in Amherst for more than 20 years. She is a former President of the Jones Library Trustees, and is a member of the D.C. Bar.

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1 thought on “Letter: Amherst’s Retroactive Tax Assessments An Unpleasant Surprise For Taxpayers

  1. Update: At the request of Town Council Chair Lynn Griesemer, Town Manager Paul Bockelman drew my attention to Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 59, Section 57C. This statute is long. It is dense. Its seventh (unnumbered) paragraph appears, however, to bless the deceptive practice of billing first, but retroactively raising the tax rate later. Here it is:

    “The actual tax bill issued upon the establishment of the tax rate for the fiscal year, after credit is given for the preliminary tax payments previously made, … shall be due and payable in 2 installments, on February 1 and on May 1 ….”

    For the shocked Amherst resident who first alerted me, this appeared to raise the property tax by nearly 25% — due and payable, on pain of 14% annual interest if late, with only a few weeks’ notice. That’s a whopper of a tax increase in anyone’s book. And it has teeth.

    The Town should explore what it can do under state law to reduce this shock and unfairness. In my view, the Town must include an insert with the tax statement — or, better and cheaper, modify the statement itself — to explain how it arrives at the amount of the tax.

    Amherst taxpayers deserve this courtesy. I see nothing in the applicable tax law that forbids either measure.

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