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Progressive property tax reform front and center on GB agenda

According to calculations by Finance Committee Chairman Michael Wise, progressive property tax reform would cut 11 to 20 percent off the property tax bills of 80 percent of the town’s households.

Great Barrington — Get ready for a season of discontent: progressive property tax reform is on the table at Town Hall. Let the debate begin.

At Tuesday’s (June 16) Finance Committee meeting, Chairman Michael Wise had his reform package on the agenda, and Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin announced that she is in the process of scheduling an informational “workshop” about the basics of taxes and Massachusetts General Law, for which she is actively trying to bring in Department of Revenue (DOR) experts. The workshop will come at a time when the town and its residents will consider Wise’s proposal for a combined progressive residential exemption and split tax rate for the town, in addition to other tax relief programs.

Wise first brought his idea, still in the rough, to the committee last fall, inspired by the controversy surrounding the vote on the Monument Mountain Regional High School renovation project, which twice failed because voters in Great Barrington — but not in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge — felt they couldn’t handle another property tax increase due to a capital project. Still in his first term on the committee, Wise declared his intention to make Great Barrington “more affordable.”

Finance Committee member Will Curletti, owner of Fuel Coffee Shop on Main Street.
Newly elected Finance Committee member Will Curletti, owner of Fuel Coffee Shop on Main Street. Photo: Heather Bellow

Wise has crunched numbers and calculated that Great Barrington property taxes “feel higher here because family and household incomes are lower,” and that “in relation to median income, are the highest in Berkshire County.”

According to Wise’s math, a residential exemption would cut 11 to 20 percent off the property tax bills of 80 percent of the town’s households. Homeowners with homes assessed below around $470,000 would see a progressively lower tax rate, and since three-quarters of residences in town fall below that “break-even value,” as Wise calls it, “the effect is clear,” and would be concentrated in Housatonic Village and Risingdale, where “most tax bills would drop by at least 20 percent.”

Tax bills of median-value assessments of $294,400, would be cut by 11 percent. Homes near the break-even point of $470,000 would not see much of a change either way, but “for the 100 high-end homes valued over $850,000, half of which are second homes, the tax bill would increase by 7 percent or more,” Wise wrote in his analysis.

The split tax rate would involve a “nominally” higher property tax rate for businesses, which combined with the residential exemption, would give needed relief and still fill town coffers.

Wise concedes that both reform proposals have sticky elements, which he has anticipated and is attempting to dissect, and the proposals have engendered a lively debate in the news media as well as on street corners and coffee shops.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Great Barrington resident Ron Banks said he was worried about a split tax. “What I see going on on Main Street is a lot of new little business that I don’t think make a lot of money.” Banks said he is concerned that when the business rate goes up, that cost will be passed on to tenants and it will “punish” everyone from landlords to developers. “Some real estate developers have done a good thing for the town, tearing up dilapidated buildings, and now there are little shops in there.”

“It’s not Walgreens or Whole Foods, it’s little people,” Banks added. “And that’s what’s charming about Great Barrington.”

Fuel Coffee Shop owner and newly elected committee member Will Curletti, said that he would do his best, as a member of the committee, to represent the interests of businesses.

Tabakin said she would do her best to wrangle a visit from the DOR for the workshop. She said that her interest in their showing up was to answer questions about how other towns manage their property tax strategies and the various tax relief programs that the town and its residents, particularly seniors on fixed incomes, can opt into. “The DOR is there as a resource. If the DOR can’t come, we’ll be doing it ourselves.”

This “doing it ourselves” business stirred the blood of Housatonic resident Michelle Loubert, who was concerned that the workshop would then be a one-sided sales pitch, delivering only the proponent’s perspective. “It bothers me…to see everything coming from one person…the residential exemption through the eyes of Michael Wise.”

The minutes secretary had to flick on the air conditioning unit; Tabakin admitted she had grown somewhat “burnt out” on the issue. “It’s a town manager’s workshop,” she said. “I’m sorry, but it’s not a Finance Committee workshop. I’d like the DOR to come…if they can’t come, we’re going to figure something out…my role is to provide access to the information.”

To the horror of some, changing the property tax structure is the purview of the Selectboard alone. As such, there will be numerous public hearings, and hopefully, the DOR will attend the workshop leading up to the tax classification hearing on August 24.

Wise said that a decision may not be made this year, and that any changes will likely not be implemented for at least another fiscal cycle.

The finance committee meets again in the Town Hall Meeting Room on July 28 at 6 p.m. Meetings and agendas are posted on the town’s website, townofgb.org.

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