| Sarah Heinonen
EAST LONGMEADOW – The East Longmeadow Town Council set the tax classification at its Nov. 10 meeting. Director of Assessing Diane Bishop presented the council with three options for the tax rate – a single rate for both residential and commercial properties, a residential exemption or a small business exemption.
Bishop told the board that if they decided to set a single tax rate, 2.5 percent of last year’s levy and the new growth of almost $700,000 would result in a $0.22 increase to the tax rate, bringing it to $21.06 from $20.84 in FY20. If they decided to set different tax rates, however, residential taxes could decrease by as much as $665, while commercial taxes would increase up to $8,328 in FY21.
Historically, East Longmeadow has used a single tax rate since the number of commercial properties in town is relatively low at 18 percent to 82 percent residential properties. The council voted to continue using a single tax rate, so as not to place undue hardship on businesses during the pandemic.
The other two options would not change the tax rate but would shift the burden within the two categories of properties.
A residential exemption, Bishop said, shifts the residential tax burden to rental homes and homeowner’s non-primary residences. She said that it is useful if there are a large number of properties that fall into this category, such as on Cape Cod, but Longmeadow mostly contains primary owner-occupied homes. There are only 16 of Massachusetts’s 351 municipalities that use this exemption.
The last option would be to use a small business exemption. This would apply to properties in which the business is valued at less than $1 million and has 10 or fewer annual employees. Longmeadow is home to 42 businesses that fall into this category and the property owners where the businesses are located would be eligible for a 10 percent reduction to the year’s taxes. That tax burden would be shifted onto the remaining commercial properties. Only 14 communities use this exemption, Bishop said.
The council chose not to adopt either of these options. All tax rate documentation is available for review at www.eastlongmeadowma.gov/252/Assessors.
The second public hearing was continued from the meeting on Oct. 13 which discussed the establishment of a mixed-use village district bylaw. Councilor Ralph Page guided the group through a list of potential changes to the bylaw that had been suggested by individual councilors after the last meeting.
The council tightened the language of the bylaw in certain places, such as strengthening “may” to “shall.” Then members of the bylaw subcommittee answered questions for the other councilors. Items that were explained included that the planning committee is in charge of the approval of the site plan and permitting, while the town manager negotiated the host community agreement with final approval given by the town council. Public use of the open space and recreation space within the development was also a matter of concern. Councilor Donald Anderson said that choice would be up to the individual developers and community associations, but, generally, residents who pay dues are the ones allowed to use the amenities.
The sticking point came when the council could not come to a consensus on the mix of residential and commercial space within the developments. The draft of the bylaw includes a range of 15 to 30 percent to be used for commercial businesses, with the rest being a mixture of housing styles. Page felt developers needed flexibility in the exact amount of space and approved of a range, but said that too much commercial space would create traffic problems.
Councilor R. Patrick Henry Jr. suggested a range of 25 to 33 percent. Councilor Marilyn Richards agreed, saying that range is “more attuned” to the idea of a “village.”
Council President Michael Kane said many residents have voiced concern that the suggested 30 percent would not be enough and suggested a range of 30 to 35 percent, but Anderson said that the ceiling was too high and that much retail space would impact traffic, but Richards noted that not all commercial space is retail, but also offices that would not generate as much traffic.
Resident Dawn Starks urged the councilors to consider what the new commercial space would do to the businesses on Shaker Road and said that many businesses in East Longmeadow were already struggling due to the financial impacts of COVID-19.
“We’re talking a lot of commercial space and how is that going to affect the existing businesses in town,” Page asked his fellow councilors. He reminded the others that the commercial space could grow beyond what they imagined if multiple floors are added to a commercial building. With that in mind, the council acknowledged that the language needed to be changed to reflect a square footage limit.
The public hearing was again continued to allow for changes to the allowable commercial space and seek out help from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.
Town Clerk Jeanne Quaglietti reported that the town had experienced a 79.5 percent voter turnout for the election on Nov. 3. She said that early voting was widely used, with between 141 and 250 people using the system each day of the two-week period. On the last day, she said that despite a snowstorm, 417 came in for early voting. Only five mail-in ballots were received between Nov. 3 and the cutoff of Nov. 6. All of them were postmarked by Election Day. Quaglietti expressed gratitude for the work put in to conduct the election with no major issues. It was “a team and village effort,” she said.
In Town Manager Mary McNally’s report, she said that the Open Space Plan had been accepted by the state which will make East Longmeadow eligible for certain grants they would not be otherwise. She said that the town was also looking for alternative funding sources, such as grants, for capital planning projects.
East Longmeadow Recycling Coordinator Elizabeth Bone received a $17,600 Green Communities grant. McNally said the funding can be used for equipment, education or other recycling-related costs.
McNally informed the council that she was waiting to hear about a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that was available for a generator at the Town Hall. She said that the severe storms the town had experienced over the summer made it apparent that a generator was needed in case of blackouts, particularly since so many employees work from home and must connect to the town’s system remotely. Council Vice President Thomas O’Connor noted that there had been talk in the past of a portable generator that could be used at town buildings as needed.
The town’s bond rating stayed even at AA+. McNally said that she had feared it would decrease as an impact of the pandemic, but was pleased it had not. “We’re really starting to get our neck above water and it’s a good feeling,” McNally said of the municipality’s finances.