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