Can Medford afford a property-tax override? Taking a look at the data.

Winthrop Circle, looking toward Medford Square. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy

Warning: Hardcore Medford post ahead.

Forty years of Proposition 2-1/2 have caught up with us in Medford. City Councilors Zac Bears and Kit Collins have proposed a $12 million override, which they say is needed to solve our long-term structural deficit. Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn, seeking a compromise, has come back with a counteroffer for an override that would add $3 million to the property-tax levy.  Thanks to Gannett, all of this is playing out in the absence of any regular news coverage.

The debate is going to come down to whether Medford residents can afford to pay more property taxes. I’ve attempted to provide some baseline numbers, drawing on data from the state and the U.S. Census. (Thanks to those of you who helped me find what I needed.) You can look at those numbers here. Let me offer a few takeaways.

First, Medford’s residential property-tax rate is very low — just $9.01 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, placing us at No. 317 of the 348 cities and towns for which I was able to get data. (There are 351 municipalities in the state.) But that’s an irrelevant number, derived from our soaring property values. So let’s get to the good stuff.

Second, our property-tax burden per capita, based on a residential property tax levy of $105.3 million, is $1,766. That puts Medford at No. 248, or in the 29th percentile. By that measure, the property-tax burden here is relatively low. The per capita burden in bordering communities: $4,676 (Winchester, No. 23); $2,911 (Arlington, No. 95); $1,798 (Somerville, No. 244); $1,244 (Malden, No. 321); and $947 (Everett, No. 338). Everett is not an affluent community, but I suspect its property-tax burden is unusually low because of the taxes paid by the Encore casino.

Now, that tells you a lot. But our third breakdown should be the most useful, because it’s based on some measure of whether a community can actually afford its residential property taxes. I’ve taken the tax burden per capita and divided it by median household income. That might sound like apples-and-oranges, but it’s not, since I’m doing it consistently for all 348 cities and towns. In other words, the percentage for any one community may not mean much, but the ranking should work as a pretty accurate measure. Let me walk us through this a bit more carefully.

In Medford, the median household income is $101,168, which makes us a relatively affluent community (No. 129). With per capita residential taxes of $1,766, that gives us 1.75% for property-tax burden as a percentage of per capita income. By that measure, Medford is No. 313. That puts us at the 10th percentile. In other words, the property-tax burden is higher in 90% of Massachusetts communities than it is in Medford. Again, let’s look at our neighboring cities and towns.

  • Winchester, 2.7% (No. 108)
  • Arlington, 2.54% (No. 133)
  • Somerville, 1.76% (No. 308)
  • Malden, 1.67% (No. 324)
  • Everett, 1.25% (No. 341)

Let me offer one final calculation. If you add the mayor’s proposed $3 million override to our total tax levy of $105.3 million, that would be an increase of a little more than 2.8%. If you go with the Bears-Collins proposal to add $12 million, that’s 11.4%. That latter move would bring the property-tax burden as a percentage of per capita income to 1.94% and move Medford up to No. 265. But we would still be in just the 24th percentile, with residents of 76% of other communities paying more of their income on property taxes.

One argument we’re already hearing is that the override — especially the more aggressive $12 million override — is being pushed by affluent newcomers to Medford, and that longtime residents can’t afford it. There is something to that. If you’ve lived here for all or most of your life, you may very well be house-rich but relatively income-poor. We don’t want to force residents into selling because they can’t afford to pay their taxes. Property values are already spiraling out of control in Medford — up 10.1% between June 2021 and June 2022, according to Redfin.

By every objective measure, though, Medford residents can afford either override option, and even the higher of the two would still leave us well below the state average.

Correction: I’ve rewritten the top to clarify that Councilors Bears and Collins’ proposal came first, followed by Mayor Lungo-Koehn’s counterproposal.

With Gannett in retreat, could Patch step up? Or how about the TAPinto model?

I’m not going to keep doing this, but it’s only Week 2 of The Transcript & Journal. My capacity for outrage hasn’t faded away yet. So here it is.

The T&J, owned by the Gannett chain, is sent to people in Medford and Somerville who previously subscribed to the Medford Transcript or the Somerville Journal. There’s not a single Medford-specific story on the front, and the story about rats only glancingly mentions Somerville. The inside consists of press releases, a story about a dog park in Billerica, a report from State House News Service and an obit from Cambridge. Nothing on the mayor’s office, the city council, the school committee or the police department — not even a civil-rights complaint filed against the police several weeks ago, which even Patch managed to write up.

It would be amazing if Patch saw this as an opportunity to go back to its old formula, at least in some communities — one full-time journalist and a modest freelance budget. I doubt that’s going to happen, though. They seem happy with their current, profitable model in which one person produces content for multiple cities and towns. But who knows? I thought this was pretty encouraging:

I’d also love it if someone wanted to start a TAPinto site in Medford. TAPinto is a franchise model that allows entrepreneurs to get up and running very quickly with a local news site. Ellen Clegg and I recently interviewed TAPinto founder and CEO Michael Shapiro on the “What Works” podcast. If anyone wanted to start such a project here, I’d be happy to make introductions.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, everyone! Unlike 2020, when we were all stuck at home, last night we had a masked, socially distanced Christmas Eve service. Given the spread of Omicron, though, I’m wondering if that might be it for a while.

Grace Episcopal Church, Medford

Sunset on the Mystic River

At the Medford-Somerville line earlier today.

Click on image for a larger version

Medford trans community and allies protest church’s anti-LGBTQ message

A few dozen of us gathered in Medford Square early Friday evening to protest an anti-LGBTQ sign across the street at the New England Baptist Church. The sign reads: “Male and Female He Created Them. Gen. 5:2. Gender Identity Solved.”

No one was demanding that the church remove the message, which is protected by the First Amendment. But members of the trans community and their allies wanted to let them know that their views weren’t welcome. Both of the major candidates for mayor joined us — Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn, who’s running for re-election, and City Councilor John Falco, who’s challenging her.

A party atmosphere prevailed, at least on our side. Led by the Rev. Wendy Miller Olapade, we walked in front of the church once and then stood out on the opposite side of Salem Street, waving flags and signs while motorists honked their horns in support.

Tiffany Chan of WBZ-TV (Channel 4) covered the rally. The Medford Transcript was on hand as well; I’ll post a link once its story has been published. (Now added, below.)

Update: Lex Weaver, editor of The Scope, a social justice publication that’s part of Northeastern’s School of Journalism, made it over to Medford Square after we left and posted this thread. Click here to see the whole thing.

Update II: Here is Namu Sampath’s story in the Medford Transcript.

In a Pennsylvania county, fear and rumor-mongering replace reliable local news

The information gap here in Medford is not much different when compared to the situation in hundreds, if not thousands, of communities across the country. Despite having a population of nearly 60,000 and five reasonably healthy business districts, our Gannett weekly has not had a single full-time staff reporter since the fall of 2019.

So we do what people do everywhere — we rely on a few Facebook groups, Nextdoor and Patch. Of course, there is no substitute for a news source that does the unglamorous work of sitting through governmental meetings (which the weekly does on a piecemeal basis), following neighborhood issues, and keeping tabs on the local police. A lot of times we simply ask questions. Why was a helicopter hovering over the Mystic Lakes? When will everyone be allowed back in the school buildings?

Earlier this week, Brandy Zadrozny wrote a lengthy feature for NBC News about what’s happened in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, where Gannett and its predecessor company, GateHouse Media, have decimated the The Times of Beaver County since acquiring it from local ownership in 2017.

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In particular, residents have turned to a Facebook group called The News Alerts of Beaver County, an occasionally useful forum with 43,000 members that all too often devolves into a cesspool of false rumors about murders, human trafficking and child molesters. Zadrozny writes:

The News Alerts of Beaver County isn’t home base for a gun-wielding militia, and it isn’t a QAnon fever swamp. In fact, the group’s focus on timely and relevant information for a small real-world community is probably the kind that Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg envisioned when he pivoted his company toward communities in 2017.

And yet, the kind of misinformation that’s traded in The News Alerts of Beaver County and thousands of other groups just like it poses a unique danger. It’s subtler and in some ways more insidious, because it’s more likely to be trusted. The misinformation — shared in good faith by neighbors, sandwiched between legitimate local happenings and overseen by a community member with no training but good intentions — is still capable of tearing a community apart.

Zadrozny also quotes Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University, who tells her: “In a system with inadequate legitimate local news, they may only be able to get information by posting gossip and having the police correct it. One could argue this is what society will look like if we keep going down this road with less journalism and more police and government social media.”

The area does have an independent website, BeaverCountian.com, which took note of the NBC News story and has won a number of awards for its journalism. But it only posts once every couple of days or so, which isn’t enough for  county with nearly 164,000 people. Something more comprehensive is needed.

What’s at stake is our civic live and our ability to function in a democracy. This is why the fight to save local news is so important.

First day of meteorological spring

Sunset where the Mystic Lakes spill into the Mystic River. Medford side, looking toward Arlington.

Together, we can do something about local news coverage in Medford

Last fall I asked the lone full-time reporter for the Medford Transcript if he would take part in the mayoral debate I was helping to organize for the Medford Chamber of Commerce. He told me that he would have liked to, but that he couldn’t because he’d be covering it. A reasonable answer, although it also spoke to the Transcript’s lack of resources.

Not long after, he left the paper. The debate was covered by a part-time stringer. And today, more than a year and a half later, that full-time position still hasn’t been filled.

The Transcript does assign stringers to cover a few stories. They do a good job, and nothing I write here should be taken as denigrating their work. But in a city of nearly 58,000 people, we have enough news for a staff of two full-time reporters. Or four. Even when we had one, the young journalists who filled that position managed to write some important stories before moving on to bigger and better jobs. Zero, though, is just untenable.

Today Medford is very close to being a news desert, joining hundreds if not thousands of communities across the country that have so little coverage that they lack the reliable news and information they need to participate in local affairs in a meaningful way. Instead, we rely on Facebook, Nextdoor, Patch (which does have a little bit of original reporting), email lists, messages from the mayor, texts from the police department and reports by citizens who have the time and the inclination to sit through public meetings on Zoom and write them up. (Update: Since publishing this essay, I’ve learned about a free paper called the Medford News Weekly. Despite its name, there’s a lot of Somerville news in it, and the content is mostly press releases. Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on.)

As a longtime journalist and academic who studies the business of news, I want to share some thoughts on what might be done to solve the problem. Over the past few years, I’ve had several conversations with people in Medford about how to fill the gap created by the hollowing-out of our local newspaper. But solving the problem is a daunting task and, frankly, those conversations didn’t lead anywhere. First, though, a bit on how we got here. Continue reading “Together, we can do something about local news coverage in Medford”