STOCKBRIDGE — The highly controversial residential tax exemption idea floated by Select board chairman Patrick White last month may be dead before the finish.
At its Wednesday meeting, the city’s but influential finance advisory committee condemned the proposal to ease property tax on most full-time residents to benefit low-income homeowners at the expense of the city’s seasonal homeowners. , all of which would pay more.
The property tax exemption program, requiring a majority vote of three members of the Select Board at the annual tax classification meeting in October, is based on a 1979 state law passed by only 16 communities since then none in western or central Massachusetts. It requires annual renewal, if approved.
The idea caused ‘negative feedback’ and raised ‘considerable objections from part-time and full-time residents indicating that it is not really a viable solution and has divided the city’ said finance committee chairman Jay Bikofsky. “The city wouldn’t operate as a unified body on bigger issues, that was pretty clear.”
The plan could reduce residential tax assessments by up to 35% for full-time homeowners, regardless of income or assets.
Other key talking points highlighted by Finance Committee members Steve Shatz and Bikofsky:
• There is no data to support the reasons or benefits for adopting the exemption.
• The housing problems facing cities and towns are not solved by shifting the tax burden to part-time residents, including those who own more valuable properties. The housing shortage crisis has many causes, including income and wealth inequality, anti-growth regulations, high land prices and construction costs, and costly and time-consuming permitting procedures.
• Stockbridge already has two housing assistance schemes, ‘old age relief’ and property tax deferral until a property is sold.
• Part-time residents already bear more than 50% of the city’s tax burden, according to the Council of Assessors, and also pay an annual property tax.
• The Tax Exemption Program is a “band aid” welfare response and provides tax relief to many people who do not need it. Housing assistance through tax relief should be based on need. A former state Department of Revenue official describes the state law as “a solution in search of a problem.”
Bikofsky called for a thorough review, analysis and public debate on an age- and means-tested program.
“Fundamentally, we’ve moved away from a solution that divides the population into multiple sets of alternatives,” he said, such as “exemption for widows,” tax-deferral options for the elderly and a “means-tested law” approved by five communities — Concord, Hopkinton, Redding, Sudbury and Wayland.
Shatz emphasized the finance committee’s advisory role on budgetary and financial matters, but stressed that it does not set policy for the city.
Committee member Diane Reuss lambasted the residential tax exemption idea as “robbing Peter to pay Paul” and insisted that “we can do better, but it’s going to take time.”
Former city administrator Jorja-Ann Marsden listed several existing exemptions for older people that are largely unknown and need to be made public.
“Stockbridge appears to be anything but a poor community,” second owner Howard Zern said, questioning tax relief for full-time residents with properties worth up to $2 million provided by a residential exemption.
Resident Bruce Auerbach called for targeted relief for low-income people “to be shared equally by everyone in town”. He described the adoption of the exemption as “a solution that is going to cause problems”.
Eugene Fidell praised the finance committee for “an extremely thoughtful exchange of views, with the openness and transparency that we all seek in this country,” a comment that drew applause from residents attending the meeting at municipal offices.