Editor’s Note: Michael Wise is a candidate for a 3-year post on the Great Barrington Finance Committee.
Great Barrington’s town finances are healthy, yet many people feel they can no longer afford the taxes to live here. Here are some ideas for relieving the burden while maintaining quality town services.
To reduce reliance on residential property taxes, Great Barrington should develop other revenue sources. Adopting the rooms and meals taxes was a good idea, given the town’s visitor-based economy.
Other obvious options are more uncertain. Grant funds are always welcome and are worth pursuing but they would likely be relatively small and project-specific. The town should seek payments in lieu of taxes from large tax-exempt entities in town, prodding them to help pay for common services.
The most likely source for additional revenue to pay for town operations is the state. Great Barrington gets very little state aid compared to other towns in Berkshire County, even ones like Lenox that are also financially strong. A principled reason to demand more from the state – or the neighboring towns – is to support the functions that Great Barrington performs for the whole region as the “seat” of South County.
Maintaining competent, well-equipped fire and police departments costs us more than our smaller neighbors spend on shoestring and sometimes inefficient public safety operations. To be sure, the towns’ services help each other out when needed. But we help out with the only $2 million aerial truck around. Our superior libraries bring in people from all of South County. Great Barrington benefits from having the region’s quality comprehensive high school, but voters balked when asked to shoulder most of the cost to renew a facility that would serve mostly students from other towns.
The costs of services that benefit the region should be shared across the region. To persuade our neighbors to join us, we could show how co-ordination and sharing reduce total costs while improving services for all.
To find ways to make our town government more efficient, we might also learn from our neighbors, particularly the other medium-sized towns who, like us, provide services more like those of a small city.
The Finance Committee has started this process by compiling data comparing town operations and budgets. This data shows, for example, that Williamstown, with about the same population and average household income as Great Barrington, appears to spend less per capita on police, fire protection, and debt service, but more (per mile) on roads.
They may not have all the answers, of course: the per-household tax bill in Williamstown looks higher than ours, and some differences in the data may just reflect differences in accounting. Still, closer examination of how others try to solve similar problems may reveal opportunities for savings and improvements here.
To address our tax burden directly and make living in Great Barrington more affordable, the town could adopt the “residential exemption,” which would reduce the tax bill substantially for those who most need relief. This local option under state tax law has been adopted in over a dozen towns and cities in the Commonwealth. In effect, it makes the property tax somewhat progressive. For a home that is assessed at half of the average value in the town, this reform could cut the property tax bill by 20 percent.
Here is how it works: If the residence on which you are paying taxes is your primary residence, its taxable value is determined by subtracting the fixed “residential exemption” from the assessed value. Taking the average assessed value in Great Barrington to be about $350,000, the exemption could be up to $70,000. The amount of the exemption is the same for all. Obviously, the effect of the exemption would be much more significant for a less expensive house. A state website about the option (at www.mass.gov/dor ) has a calculator for estimating the net impact of the shift in relative values and the consequent adjustment of the tax rate to meet the town’s revenue target. Those changes would offset for average-valued homes, so their bills would remain the same. For those with less expensive houses, the savings would be substantial.
Second and seasonal homes do not get the exemption. The exemption could thus be seen as a way of raising more revenue from that aspect of the local “tourism” business. Commercial properties also do not get the exemption. By raising somewhat more revenue from business and industry, a side effect of the reform would be to achieve one goal of a “split rate.”
Prioritizing spending is an important function for the Finance Committee. In addition to the annual task of picking the nits from the budget lines, though, the Finance Committee should help shape the town’s funding and capital investment strategies. The Finance Committee should hold hearings about reforms of our tax rules, such as adopting the residential exemption. The Finance Committee should work with the Select Board and the town manager to develop longer-term capital funding plans: renewing our century-old roads and bridges is more than a five-year project. And the Finance Committee should reach out to its counterparts in neighboring towns to join the growing discussion about ways to share functions and reduce the costs of providing the quality services that make Great Barrington such a great place to live.
Details matter. Finding solutions will require study, not slogans.