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Great Barrington Sticking With Single Tax Rate, Squashing Reform Plan

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Great Barrington Town Hall

A proposal to restructure Great Barrington’s tax system that became a divisive issue in town has been squashed — at least for the time being.The Select Board voted unanimously Monday to set a single tax rate of $14.29 per $1,000 of assessed property. The board then took a non-binding vote to keep the single rate through fiscal 2017, therein putting to rest an effort to provide a residential exemption for lower-valued homes. The proposal from the town’s Finance Committee Chair Michael Wise would’ve excluded properties of second home owners. He listed a number of scenarios where properties valued over $330,000, even those owned by full-time residents, would not qualify for the residential exemption.

“The motivation behind it is to give the people at the low end of the scale some relief and make the property taxes progressive,” said Wise.

Wise says well over half and as many as 80 percent of homeowners would’ve seen lower taxes. But, residents pointed out that rental properties did not qualify for exemption, meaning landlords would likely pass costs on to tenants. Selectman Bill Cooke, who campaigned in favor of the exemption, had a change of heart noting increased work for the assessor’s office in handling exemption applications and the impact on renters.

“I still think it’s a worthwhile idea, but when you get right down to the nitty-gritty of implementing it, it’s got more problems than I thought it would,” said Cooke.

Selectman Ed Abrahams abstained from voting on the decision to keep the single tax rate for fiscal 2017. Noting that residents have complained of high taxes, he says he wants to get more numbers and hear more discussion of what a change could do.

“There are things that can be done, none of them by Great Barrington elected officials,” Abrahams said. “All of them by either other towns or the state. So this residential exemption and changing the tax rate is one of the very few tools we have.”

Wise also proposed a split tax rate, which exists in communities like Pittsfield where businesses and residents pay separate rates. His overall proposal was defeated by the Finance Committee a week earlier, 3-2. Richard Stanley, a resident of Egremont, owns the Triplex Cinema and a number of commercial buildings in downtown Great Barrington, a town of about 7,100.

“If we start raising the taxes on the business entities I’m going to just have to pass those right along to the business owners,” Stanley said. “So there’s another case of killing golden goose. It’s these hardworking retail merchants that have revitalized Great Barrington.”

Abrahams says he would like to get more information on the split rate, adding that it could be phased in. Wise says he doesn’t plan to bring up his proposal again.

The new tax rate is 57 cents above the current one. The $5,138 average single family tax bill in Great Barrington was already second highest in Berkshire County behind Williamstown.

One issue that’s been raised is Great Barrington’s annual commitment to the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, which includes Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. Under the current agreement, Great Barrington pays about 70 percent of the costs based on enrollment by town. Great Barrington Select Chair Sean Stanton says the towns have agreed to form a committee to review the agreement. He point outs that the Select Board does not control the school budget. He says when the board takes the municipal budget to voters at annual town meetings there is little debate.

“They have every right to say ‘No we don’t want to spend this much money’ or ‘Yes we do,’” Stanton said. “We send them a budget that we think is fair and reasonable.”

Following approval in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge,for the past two years Great Barrington voters have rejected paying for a $50 million-plus renovation of Monument Mountain Regional High School.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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