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Majority vote maintains single tax rate

Nov. 21, 2013
By Chris Maza


LONGMEADOW – At its Nov. 18 meeting, the Select Board voted in favor of maintaining a single tax rate for the town’s property taxes.

Principal Assessor Robert Leclair told the board that he supported a single rate because the minimal savings to residential property owners would place an undue burden on the small amount of commercial business while not seeing any financial benefit as a town.

“I think there’s a large misconception with classification,” he said. “We cannot raise additional funds through a split rate.”

Leclair said the Board of Assessors proposed a tax rate of $23.15 per $1,000 valuation, which he said was the most fair and equitable way to split the tax burden.

“That figure is the $45 million the town would raise though property taxes, divided by the value of all of the town’s property,” he said.

Leclair went on to explain that residential homes make up 95 percent of taxable properties in the town. Because of that, for every penny the residential tax rate is lowered, the commercial tax rate would increase by 23 cents.

“At the maximum, it would reduce the residential rate by 63 cents, or $22.51 [per $1,000], and the commercial tax rate would increase to 33.72 [per $1,000],” he said.

Jeffrey Rahn, a member of the Board of Assessors, added that the board did research as to what other towns’ policies were regarding taxes and found that those structured similarly to Longmeadow also use a single tax rate.

“If you look at the data with regard to other towns and cities, when it comes to residential percentage versus percentage of commercial and industrial property, we are in the bottom 10 percent. We are 33rd out of 351 towns in terms of percentage of non-residential property,” he said. “In the top 70 percent of towns, only four do not have a single tax rate. We feel we are in the norm of what happens elsewhere in the state.”

Leclair added that through this system, homeowners would be taxed commensurate with the value of their homes.

“If one person pays a certain amount for a $100,000 house, the person with a $200,000 house pays twice as much, which only seems fair” he said.

Selectman Alex Grant began a lengthy discussion in which he questioned the assessors as to why there wasn’t more information regarding a residential exemption that would make the tax rate higher on non-owner occupied properties. Grant suggested that the exemption would provide tax relief to those who live in the properties they own.

Rahn explained that exemption typically applies to vacation homes and would be more useful to towns in the Berkshires or on or near Cape Cod than it would in Longmeadow.

Grant stated that Boston utilizes such a residential exemption, as does Washington D.C., where he used to live and asked if the assessors had done any analysis on it.

Grant also said that with the possibility of a casino in Springfield, there was the chance that workers would begin “hot-bedding,” a practice in which workers on different shifts take turns utilizing one residence.

Leclair said he didn’t have any figures on the number of people who utilize their homes in Longmeadow on a part-time basis, but stated it was his belief that Longmeadow has the makeup that would make that kind of exemption viable.

It was also pointed out that Longmeadow does not have a system for determining residency if a person owns more than one home and with many members of the population having vacation homes or residences in southern states during colder months, that it would be difficult to determine what constitutes residency.

Rahn added that larger cities with multiple clerks are able to handle any affidavits or forms that may be required to certify an owner-occupied residence and Longmeadow does not have the resources to police a policy like the exemption Grant was suggesting.

Leclair also reminded Grant that the exemption would not raise any additional funding, only shift the responsibility of payment and stated that such an exemption would put a very large burden on a very small number of people, similar to the effect a split tax rate would have on commercial properties. It was possible, he added, that the extra costs could be borne by the elderly in the community.

Grant said he understood additional monies couldn’t be raised by the exemption, but stated that in having some tax relief, residents could be more amenable to future overrides if needed. Currently, he said, after the high school project, townspeople are reluctant to take on any additional burden.

He suggested that the board hold off on voting on a tax classification until the assessors had the opportunity to research the matter.

Selectman Richard Foster said he supported looking into the idea, but wondered if there would be enough time for an adequate study of the applicability of an exemption, to which Finance Director Paul Pasterczyk said no.

He said the board would not have to make a decision on a tax classification until the beginning of December, but added that he didn’t believe two weeks would allow for the kind of research that would have to be conducted.

Selectman Mark Gold, who voted in favor of a split tax rate a year before, said he supported a single tax rate this year because of the shift in commercial and residential property values.

Selectman Paul Santaniello criticized the Board of Assessors for over the years having more of a focus on protecting the interest of businesses than that of residents.

He said in the eight tax classification hearings he has been a part of, the assessors have always told the Select Board of the importance of fairness to businesses and “just once it would be nice to hear about what’s fair for residents.”

He added that businesses in town are not necessities, but conveniences, and pointed out that a retail store or restaurant can dull the impact of a tax hike by passing the burden on to consumers.

Foster agreed with that point, stating, “They can charge more for a beer, but I can’t increase my pension. My costs go up and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

The board ultimately approved the classification 3-1, with Grant issuing the negative vote. Select Board Chair Marie Angelides was not present, Gold said, because of an illness.

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