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To refill town coffers GB Selectboard ponders 5-cent gas tax

The key thing about the gas tax bill is that it forces towns to have “discipline” since gas tax money can only be spent on roads and bridges.

Great Barrington — As the town continues its struggle to keep everything going amid a climate of low state aid and not enough local tax money coming in, and taxpayers, given local incomes levels, feeling the property tax anvil crushing them flat, people are getting frustrated and desperate, and starting to think of new ways to make the town some money.

Selectboard Chairman Sean Stanton. Photo: Heather Bellow
Selectboard Chairman Sean Stanton. Photo: Heather Bellow

Selectboard Chair Sean Stanton thinks a gas tax of 5 cents per gallon, every penny of which heads straight into town coffers, will ease some pain on the infrastructure front, namely the fixing of roads, bridges and sidewalks. Gas tax money can only be spent that way, says Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox), who introduced a bill for this “local option” across the state.

Stanton noticed that the town of Lee is trying to do this with a “home rule petition” in the Legislature to add a gas tax that might make the town around $250,000 to $300,000 per year. Pignatelli saw what was happening and not only filed the bill for Lee, but for the whole state, because he saw more of the same coming. “If other towns climb on,” Pignatelli said, “the legislation would already be in place.”

The question was placed, originally at 3 cents per gallon on the draft town warrant for the May 9 Annual Town Meeting. But at Monday’s (March 11) Selectboard meeting, Stanton said he felt strongly the town needs 5 cents. Only board member Dan Bailly said he thought three cents would go over better with voters, but he did not appear too disturbed by the increase. Stanton said, if necessary, the amount of the tax could always be changed at Town Meeting.

Stanton said $500,000 a year from the tax “is still not enough of what we need to get by. We’re borrowing every year $500,000 in 10 year bonds and interest rates are going up.”

He said instead of borrowing the money every year, the gas tax would spread the roadwork tab among both locals and visitors.

Great Barrington Selectboard mulling over the concept of a local gas tax: From left, Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, Chair Sean Stanton, Steve Bannon, Dan Bailly, Ed Abrahams, and Bill Cooke.
Great Barrington Selectboard mulling over the concept of a local gas tax: From left, Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, Chair Sean Stanton, Steve Bannon, Dan Bailly, Ed Abrahams, and Bill Cooke. Photo: Heather Bellow

And Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin said that simply putting the gas tax up for a vote at Town Meeting might be “an important statement” that could also pressure the state to release more road money.

But around here, mention the word “tax” and the wallet-gripping reflex kicks in, anxiety soars. Even the Legislature is afraid of it.

“The Legislature is taking this no tax pledge,” Pignatelli said, in a phone interview. The House of Representatives supports it, he added, but the tax is facing resistance in the Senate.

“I don’t know why this one is such a roadblock,” he added. Part of problem, he said, is that the Department of Revenue (DOR) doesn’t know how to collect the money yet. The DOR says it’s complicated because the state charges the gas distributor, not the customer at the point of sale. Pignatelli doesn’t think this should hang things up. “I don’t think it’s as complicated as they’re making it out to be.”

Pignatelli said there’s gas tax momentum around the state. The town of Charlton voted to do it, and Westwood is trying to.

“It’s an indication that the cities and towns are struggling to keep up with their infrastructures and are looking at creative ways to generate their own revenue if state can’t deliver enough.”

Many ask why the state holds back its road and bridges “Chapter 90” money, which should be closer to $640 million rather than the $300 million doled out last year, according to Pignatelli.

“There are two sides,” he said, noting that when he was a selectman in Lenox, he used to complain and criticize the state all the time. But as a state rep, he gets it now. “When is enough enough?” he said. “We’re pushing our own debt limits in the Commonwealth.”

While the state right now has the highest bond rating in its history, he said, “bond holders are concerned about our debt cap. If we lost the high bond rating, that could impact local aid. The state is dealing with the same pinch cities and towns are feeling.”

Pignatelli thinks the gas tax is a grand idea. While it may tax locals as well as visitors, “100 percent goes directly back to this community,” unlike now, where what we pay at the pump heads to Boston. For instance, he added, one penny of the sales tax goes straight to the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) — that’s $30 million going east; another penny goes to the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority).

He said a four percent hotel tax, started 30 years ago, made $1 million for Lenox in its first year, and takes care of Lenox’s infrastructure, for which $1 million to $1.5 million is spent every year. Last year, the town made $2 million from it. “The hotel tax protected the tax rate in Lenox, invested in town infrastructure with little or no impact on taxpayers.”

He further said it didn’t discourage tourism in a town with the most hotel rooms in the county, and where $25 million is spent on rooms every year. “If you look at Lenox right now, probably 350 to 400 new hotel rooms are either permitted or in the hopper for new construction.”

Since Great Barrington also has the hotel tax, he said room increases from both the additional rooms going into the Holiday Inn Express on Stockbridge Road, and the 78 rooms going into the The Berkshire hotel in the old Searles School will also help.

Pignatelli said the key thing about the gas tax bill is that it forces towns to have “discipline,” since gas tax money can only be spent on roads and bridges.

He also said legislators need to “get more creative” about finding ways to filter state money back to the small, outlying towns that don’t have gas stations or hotels.

These local options are a “tool in the toolbox,” he said. “If this is a tool you [towns] think you could benefit from, knock yourself out.”

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