#10 – Cost of Living in Falmouth

The Town of Falmouth provides a full range of municipal services including a high performing public school system. With the cost of living rising, communities everywhere are grappling with how to prioritize fiscal responsibility without sacrificing local amenities. While cost of living generally refers to the price of gas, food, and other necessities, many of which are beyond the purview of municipal government, property taxes and housing costs play a large part in residents’ estimation of the cost to live in Falmouth. Falmouth’s fiscal tax base is largely dependent on residential tax revenues. Enhancing commercial tax revenues could provide more Town services that support residents.

What we know so far (from the Community Survey results and background research work):

HISTORY

  • The Town experienced a rapid tax base growth in the late 1980’s. This growth stabilized in the early 1990’s and increased again during the late 1990’s. The Town had another period of rapid tax base growth in the early 2000s (averaging 7.8% per year) and performed a re-valuation in 2009.
  • Since 2009, the Town experienced moderate growth of slightly over 1.1%.
  • In 1999, the median household income in Falmouth was $66,855. By 2009, this increased 24% to $83,139. The 2019 U.S. Census American Community Survey 5-year estimated median household income is $121,285, a 46% increase since 2009. By comparison, the 2019 median income in Cumberland County is $73,072 and $57,918 in Maine.
  • As of the 2019 survey, 2.7% of Falmouth’s population are considered persons in poverty. 6.1% of students enrolled in Falmouth Schools during the 2019-2020 school year qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.
  • Falmouth’s population is well educated. As of 2019, 98.5% of people over age 25 had attained a high school degree or higher and 67% had attained a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • Falmouth’s population is aging. As of 2019, 18.7% of Falmouth’s population is 65 years and over. This has increased from 16.8% in 2010. The ability to age in place is a consideration when discussing cost of living.
  • Housing affordability is a challenge in Falmouth and across Maine. As of 2019, the median home value in Falmouth is $439,800 as compared to $278,100 in Cumberland County and $190,400 in Maine. Housing prices have continued to increase during the pandemic.

RELATED MACRO TRENDS

  • An emerging side effect of positive economic and development impacts is gentrification. Rising property values often create contexts where existing businesses and residents can be pushed out. Enacting strategies to minimize gentrification is an important part of new development plans. Efforts can include construction of affordable mixed-use building, freezing property tax hikes for longtime residents, or securing grants to support low-to-moderate income families.
  • Planning for the future requires looking ahead to anticipate how trends and global events will impact us in the future. With its close proximity to Portland, Falmouth is poised to actively pursue controlled non-residential development and potentially recruit specialized industries to enhance community amenities and to keep the cost of living more affordable for residents.

WHAT IS CURRENTLY HAPPENING IN FALMOUTH

  • The Town’s FY22 tax rate is $17.43 per $1,000 of property valuation (“mils”). The Municipal share of the tax rate is 20.6%, the School Department accounts for 74.9%, and Cumberland County accounts for 4.5%.
  • Falmouth’s municipal tax rate continues to compare very favorably to surrounding communities. The State Bureau of Taxation publishes full value tax rates for all Maine communities each year. Full value tax rates are used so that fair comparisons can be made between communities. The rate is calculated by using the state-determined valuations and the adjusted locally determined property tax commitments. The Town’s 2019 state adjusted valuation mil rate of $13.76 mils was the lowest overall property tax mil rate of comparable communities. The 2019 Greater Portland average was $15.24 mils.
  • Falmouth has a diversified tax base in that the largest taxpayer comprises only 3.1% of the Town’s total valuation. The top ten taxpayers combined represent 8.6% of the Town’s total valuation. The commercial tax base is well balanced with strong retail, office, and service sectors.
  • The Town’s 2020 tax collection rate was 99.2%.
  • The Town’s FY22 monthly sewer rate of $46.88 is $13.44 less than the 2019 Maine town and city sewer rate average of $60.32. The Town’s sixteen-year average sewer rate growth is 2.4%.
  • For the past four years, the Town has offered a Senior Property Tax Assistance Program for residents (owners and renters) age 62 or older with annual incomes under $50,000 (2021 program year). The program refunds a portion of eligible residents’ property taxes.
  • The recently approved State Legislative Budget increased the FY22 revenue share for Falmouth and increased the allocation of State Aid to schools which allowed the School Board to reduce the local share of the cost of education and the Town Council to reduce the FY22 tax mil rate by $0.54, from the originally project rate of $17.97 to $17.43.
  • Falmouth is currently conducting a revaluation of all real property in town which will conclude in August 2022. During a revaluation, all real property is reviewed and assessments are adjusted to their fair market value for the purpose of a fair distribution of the tax burden.
  • Falmouth continually seeks creative solutions to combat rising costs of services for residents, most specifically with regard to sustainability initiatives that provide free recycling, free food waste disposal, and free use of electric vehicle charging stations.

WHAT THE COMMUNITY SURVEY RESULTS SHOW

  • Survey respondents were asked the following question about taxes and investment in Falmouth (scale: 1 = Minimum taxes, 10 = ‘Higher level of services’): Should Falmouth prioritize fiscal prudence and minimize taxes or invest in more and higher quality town services and amenities? Responses showed a broad range of perspectives with the largest group of responses (22%) in the middle at number 5.
  • Falmouth Community Survey participants were asked to indicate how important they believed the following economy and social infrastructure topics will be in shaping the future of Falmouth. Using a scale of 1-3 (not important), 4-7 (neutral), and 8-10 (important), below are the results:
    • Embracing more tourism economy: 43% not important, 43% neutral, 14% important
    • Expanding the supply of affordable housing: 34% not important, 35% neutral, 31% important
    • Keeping taxes low: 13% not important, 51% neutral, 36% important
    • Pursuing more local employment opportunities: 17% not important, 47% neutral, 36% important

CONSULTANT’S INSIGHTS and POTENTIAL TRADE-OFFS

  • Cost of living is a critical issue for everyone, as it has a direct impact on disposable income. However, it may affect people differently at various stages of life. For example, a working two-income household may be less directly affected than a retiree household which has a fixed or limited income.
  • Generally, people today are seeking and expecting more public services and amenities in their community. In many cases they are provided by the local government. However, the Town of Falmouth Municipal’s share of the current tax rate is only 20%, which limits the resources available. Finding the right balance between services and costs is a critical issue, as is managing community expectations.
  • The challenge is to find creative partnerships and mechanisms that continue to meet community needs for amenities and services, without driving up the cost of living in an unsustainable manner.

We would love to hear your thoughts!

Falmouth’s Vision and Values Community Vision project will ascertain the preferred future for the community built on resident input over the course of this year. Balancing the costs and benefits of future decisions will play a critical part of the visioning process and residents will explore the impacts of intended and unintended consequences.
How do you think the community can work to keep the cost of living affordable for current and future residents while at the same time maintaining and improving Falmouth’s high quality of living?
Comments made via this portal are public. We expect conversations to follow the rules of polite discourse. Messages containing inappropriate content or language will be removed at the discretion of Future iQ.

7 Comments

Based on actual sales prices for Falmouth over the last two years, the current property values are far short of “full valuation”. Hopefully, we can achieve an honest value for our homes based on the current revaluation project. We need to be very careful when comparing mil rates from town to town as different towns use different percentages of the full value in their calculations.

Everyone wants lower taxes but they also realize that we have to pay for the services we use. Keep the currently level of services and do not expand them.

I wholeheartedly agree with Lee that it would be good to get an honest value of all the property in Falmouth through the current revaluation project since things are definitely off after all the changes in the real estate market over the last few years. He is right that mil rates do vary a lot, which can skew comparisons.

Another way that we can address cost of living concerns fixed income and retirement-age residents may have is by promoting more non-residential growth along the Rt. 1 and Rt. 100. The town has committed tens of millions in the last decade to building out infrastructure on those corridors and sensible commercial development there would add limited burdens to the town while building up a commercial tax base that could lessen the tax load on Falmouth residents.

I also agree with James that keeping a close eye on our current level of services is a great idea. We should be thinking about what services we take on as well as what infrastructure we take on. The town staff and town council have, in my opinion, done a nice job of this in the past and I hope they continue to view increased services and infrastructure (including taking ownership of private roads) with a strong cost/benefit analysis in mind.

Actually, the best tax event for Falmouth is the construction of a sizable home in Farm and Forest zoning where there is neither water nor sewer available. If the occupants are empty nesters, the town needs only to provide trash collection and fire and police protection. As far as the Town permitting their road to go public, don’t worry, it is not going to happen. The occupant of that home has paid for the roads, water, sidewalks and sewer. The town will never have to repair the road nor plow it in the winter.
At the other end of the spectrum, a couple with two kids living in an apartment on Route 1 has all of the town’s amenities including their kid’s education at only a fraction of the tax paid by the couple in Farm and Forest. The strong push for packing residents into Falmouth at low tax rates benefits only the developers, not Falmouth.

I think Lee brings up an excellent ‘fork in the road’ discussion point above around the cost-benefit analysis around different types of development and the needs to run the numbers! I agree that if the cul-de-sacs remain private, then single family homes may be break even for the town (although they are still odds on going to add more kids to the schools). That said, if roads are public and the town is responsible for them, the calculus likely changes sharply. Here’s a good discussion of costs/benefits of development and how we might evaluate it:
https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2021/2/27/should-we-do-this-project-a-strong-towns-answer

Also, apartments along Rt. 1 don’t necessarily have to be 3 and 4 bedroom apartments for families. They could be studio – 2 bedroom apartments that appeal for to empty-nesters, 20-somethings, or middle-aged folks without kids. Those would almost certainly be a net gain in value for the town since the road infrastructure is there regardless and they wouldn’t be as much of a burden on schools.

There are a lot of ways to manage growth in Falmouth while controlling cost of living – I just hope that – like Lee proposes – we use the numbers and data to guide our master planning process, what projects get approved in the future, and how the town decides to deal with private streets.

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MORE INFORMATION​

For more information about the Town of Falmouth Vision and Values project, please contact:

David Beurle, CEO
Future iQ
Phone: (612) 757-9190
david@future-iq.com

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