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Beyond short-term rentals: A closer look at annual Great Barrington town meeting

The 2022 Great Barrington, Massachusetts town meeting at Monument Mountain Regional High School.
Josh Landes
The 2022 Great Barrington, Massachusetts town meeting at Monument Mountain Regional High School.

While they may have seized most of the attention, short-term rentals weren’t the only topic of discussion at Monday night’s Great Barrington, Massachusetts annual town meeting.

The 2022 Great Barrington town meeting approved a $13.6 million dollar operating budget for fiscal year 2023, up 6% over the previous year, as well as the borrowing of $1.5 million for a high school design study by the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.

Other decisions of note included a vote to expand access to a property tax deferral program for older adults. Resident Carol Diehl was one of its supporters.

“People under a certain income, which is $40,000 a year, who are over a certain age would be able to defer their taxes until either they passed away or the house changed hands at an interest rate that would benefit the community," she said. "So if you want to do something that doesn't cost more in taxes, but would keep housing affordable, keep neighborhoods stable, this is what to vote for.”

“This is a safety net to seniors in case of unexpected expenses when people are on fixed incomes and they're facing illness, or death in the family, divorce, job loss, bankruptcy, major repairs and other crises. We all face them," said resident Vivian Orlowski. “The town earns interest on seniors’ deferred tax payments, and there is no cost to taxpayers. Seniors who apply must provide the town with secure collateral to ensure payment. Massachusetts state law already offers a senior tax deferral program. The problem is that law dates back to the 1970s when they set maximum qualifying yearly income at $20,000 and the interest rate at 8%.”

Under the newly amended law, Great Barrington residents 65 or older making under $40,000 would now be eligible for deferred taxes with an interest rate of 5%.

“I think this should be definitely considered for the folks that have lived here and made this town what it is, have paid their taxes for years and years and years," said Selectboard member Garfield Reed. "Now, they're just asking possibly for a little help so they can stay and age in their homes and live in their communities.”

During the review of the town’s fiscal year 2023 capital requests, voters got insight into the ongoing effort to outfit town police officers with body cameras. A resident asked about the breakdown of $40,000 in free cash to purchase six units along with licensing and data storage for 24 units.

“Each interval individual officer has to have their own camera, and you're right, they’re approximately $600 apiece. But that doesn't include the licensing, the data storage, and the data management, also the other equipment that goes along it- For example, the charging systems that will be in place," said Great Barrington Police Chief Paul Storti. “So the total project is just under $70,000. I applied for a grant and we received almost $20,000 from the grant, so the remaining balance would be $49,000 and change.”

Storti told WAMC his department is going with the Axon Body 3 camera.

Historic District Commission member Abby Schroeder successfully rallied voters to amend the capital request for parks improvement and equipment from $50,000 to $100,000.

“The Parks Department basically has to say no to almost everything that anybody wants to do, unless they're prepared to spend it themselves," she said. "That's unreasonable when we have a community that is children and adults who want to use the parks, and sometimes we can't because they're not available because it costs money.”

The fiscal year 2023 operating budget for Great Barrington’s parks is $122,000. Capital requests are a separate item used to address specific equipment needs — which Schroeder said the town’s parks have.

“There aren't benches in a lot of the parks," she said. "In fact, you've just put two benches near the courthouse, that park. That's not enough for people to enjoy the use of the park. If they have children playing in the middle, they want to have a place to sit.”

She told voters that her interest in the issue was sparked by her own efforts for an upcoming tribute to a recently departed, beloved Berkshire musician with strong ties to Great Barrington.

“The event, by the way, that I'm involved with, is to honor David Grover, who began the bandstand in 1987," said Schroeder. "And I was there, I was involved with presenting it, and we are going to honor him on July 2nd. And I don't hold anybody in town responsible for saying they can't do it, but they said they can't do it. So I'm doing it. And it's for everybody to come and enjoy hearing stories and songs that reflect on David Grover’s life and the fact that he is a legend in his own time.”

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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