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Pittsfield denies new pole construction to protest energy companies’ refusal to pay taxes

A map of a proposed pole installation in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
City of Pittsfield
The map showing where Verizon New England and NSTAR wanted to install a new pole in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council has denied a request from Verizon New England and an electric company to install a new support pole for wires and cables, citing frustration with unpaid taxes.

The request came from the wireless giant and NSTAR, a subsidiary of Eversource Energy.

At Tuesday’s meeting, at-large city councilor Earl Persip called up Assessor Paula King to answer questions about NSTAR and Eversource, which have challenged their personal property tax every year since 2018.

KING: Since we've been using a blended method to appraise the utility since 2018, they have been paying about a little bit over half of what their bill is for personal property. There is by law, the ability to appeal a tax as long as you're paying that portion when it comes to personal property, at least half of the bill.

PERSIP: So where are we at with-

KING: They currently owe in taxes $3.6 million and almost $1 million in interest and penalties. So a total of $4.6 million.

PERSIP: Dating back as far as how long?

KING: 2018.

PERSIP: And where are we at with getting payment or a resolution?

KING: All of our cases are currently pending, as are most of the cases within the commonwealth. Right now, there are approximately 114 pending cases with the appellate tax board throughout the commonwealth with regards to-

PERSIP: Is that usually the case or has COVID slowed that down?

KING: When there are these, this large of amounts, they do tend to lag. So it's not just due to COVID. But that doesn't help either.”

PERSIP: Thank you. So just a few comments. I bring this up, because there’s a pretty hefty tax bill out there, that these companies keep coming back for us, for these poles and such, and we approve them with no kind of pushback, or, you know, argument for the most part, except when the plans are unreadable. I think we need to keep a close eye on this. And if this is the way we get Eversource, or NSTAR to actually move on some of these back taxes going back 2018. I think this is, you know, a way to- I'm not saying tonight I won't vote for this. But I think we need to keep an eye on this and be aware of it for the future.

The discussion follows similar city council efforts to hold Eversource’s feet to the fire in Springfield in recent weeks.

The Pittsfield council decided to take it up in the present.

“If you want to force somebody's hand, then you've got to start denying some things,” said Ward 4 city councilor Christopher Connell. “And so I think if we send a message, this council sends a message and votes no on this, that the word gets back to Eversource. You know, maybe they start reconsidering making a repayment plan on these back taxes, that's a considerable sum.”

“I really urge my fellow colleagues tonight to send a message, pay your bills,” said Ward 2 city councilor Kevin Morandi. “If you want to come before this council, pay your bills, be in good standing. And then you'll get treated respectfully. Until that, but, we've got to start somewhere. And we got so I asked that we send a message tonight and vote no against this.”

“I will not support this,” said Ward 1 city councilor Helen Moon. “I mean, Eversource – it's a public utility. But they are over $1 billion in revenue last year, and it looks like they're withholding taxes, millions of dollars in taxes, for 87 Massachusetts communities. I think about our residents in Pittsfield who don't pay their Eversource bills and what happens to them, who is bailing them out?”

In a unanimous vote, the Pittsfield city council denied the pole request.

In a statement, Eversource contends it is one of the largest taxpayers in the state and always pays in accordance with state law. The company explained its legal challenges to local tax bills as an act of financial prudence to resolve inconsistencies and discrepancies in assessed property values.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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