Updated August 31, 2022 07:58AM
Williamstown Sets Single Tax Rate for FY23
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The average property owner will see a 4.4 percent rise in their property tax in the current fiscal year according to numbers presented by Town Assessor Chris Lamarre.
Lamarre gave a report to the Select Board and the fire district's Prudential Committee before each taxing authority made its annual vote on whether to maintain a single tax rate in the town.
According to projections based on the total tax levy — the spending approved by the annual town meeting and annual district meeting — and the total value of taxable property (currently just more than $1.2 billion), the tax rate for FY23 will be $16.17 per $1,000 of assessed value.
That actually represents a drop of 75 cents from the FY22 tax rate of $16.92.
But property owners will pay more because of a 10.2 percent increase in the value of all taxable property in town. That value is assessed to be worth $100 million more on the aggregate, than in the year that ended June 30.
The median value of properties — the point at which half the town's properties are valued higher and half are valued lower — stands at $355,700 in FY23, up from $333,800 in the year prior.
A $16.17 tax rate on that $355,700 property equates to a $5,752 tax bill — up by $104 (or 4.4 percent) from the $5,648 median tax bill in FY22.
Following Monday's unanimous decisions by the Select Board and Prudential Committee to maintain the single tax rate, the town will submit its numbers to the Department of Revenue for its sign-off before the tax rate becomes official and bills can be issued.
Although the elected bodies have regularly given the OK to the single rate, the question has generated discussion to varying degrees in years past. This year's hearing saw several residents, including one member of the five-person Select Board advocate for a more careful analysis of whether it makes sense to split the tax rate going forward.
Specifically, they advocated for consideration of granting a residential exemption, a mechanism under state law that allows municipalities to shift the property tax burden — within the residential class — to residences assessed above the townwide median.
"As you know, I'm on the Planning Board, and one of the things we work on is how to foster more affordable housing," Stephanie Boyd said from the floor of the public hearing. "I don't understand exactly how the residential exemption might work … but I'd be interested to know how it might affect taxes for lower-priced housing and higher-priced housing.
"Is that something we should consider looking into more next year? I think it's an interesting question how we can use tax policy to make housing more affordable."
According to Lemmare's memo to the town boards, Massachusetts General Law allows an exemption of up to 35 percent of the town's average assessed value for a residence that is the "domicile of a taxpayer."
"Properties of domiciled taxpayers below the breakeven will pay fewer taxes while those valued higher will pay more," Lemmare memo reads.
Randal Fippinger, who joined his Select Board colleagues remotely for the hour-long meeting, added that he too would like more information about how the tax shift could enhance affordability in town.
"I would love to take some time to review different tax rates," Fippinger said. "I'm also following what's going on in Stockbridge. I'd love to come to this meeting next year with options after having consultations with Chris [Lemmare] and the Planning Board and anyone else about the implications if we had different tax rates."
Stockbridge in South County is considering whether to become the first Berkshire County community to implement the residential exemption.
In fact, Lemmare said Monday that of the 16 municipalities that have adopted the residential exemption, none are west of I-495.
"These communities typically have a large number of apartment buildings (Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville & Chelsea) or a disproportionately large number of second homes (Cape Cod & the Island communities)," Lemmare's memo said.
Select Board Chair Hugh Daley noted that Stockbridge has about 50 percent second-home ownership. Williamstown's best estimate is that it has about 165 "confirmed second-home property owners," Lemmare said. That would translate to less than 10 percent of the town's total residences.
There are other potential issues for Williamstown to consider before moving to a split tax rate, Lemmare said.
"It's a question of whose ox gets gored," he said. "Domicile owners with a value less than break-even would get an exemption. Multi-family property owners, land owners, second-home owners whose land is higher than the break-even would subsidize all those on the lower end.
"As it relates to affordable housing and developing workforce housing, it can be considered somewhat regressive if we asked all the multi-family property owners to pay more. They'd pass it on to the tenant, and those folks are the ones who, I would say, are least able to afford to live in the community."
Select Board member Andy Hogeland noted that one issue with the residential exemption is that it's not means tested.
"You could have a $250,000 house and have no money or you could have a $250,000 house and have a million dollars," Hogeland said, pointing out that the tax break would apply in both scenarios.
Daley made a philosophical argument for the unified tax rate.
"I know in my own personal world, I like the flat portion of this," Daley said. "It means that every community member is participating in the cost of services and the benefit of services equally. I'm confident after years of doing this that the residential exemption takes us in a direction that I don't think I want to go.
"While it's possible [the exemption] could reduce someone's property tax bill, it doesn't reduce the overall tax bill to the community. What I'd like to do is concentrate with [Town Manager Robert Menicocci] on our expenses."
Resident Wendy Penner was not swayed.
"We have very large single-family homes that use a lot of natural resources," Penner said. "To me, having them have a greater tax burden makes a lot of sense. I think of this as resource consumption in the community and what people are giving versus what they're getting.
"If you're going to come here and build a big single-family home that's maybe only occupied part of the year, to me it's appropriate that you pay more to cover the cost."
After the unanimous votes on the tax rate question, the Prudential Committee adjourned for the evening.
The Select Board had two more items on its agenda.
Hogeland informed his colleagues and residents that a new draft human resources policy for the town more than a year in the making is ready for review. He invited residents and employees of the town to look at the document, available on the town's website, and make suggestions.
"In addition to doing the conventional things, this has a few items that are new or enhanced," Hogeland said. "Policies on harassment, workplace bullying, social media, whistle blower provisions, violence in the workplace.
"It includes at the very beginning language about the town's and town hall's commitment to promoting diversity, equity and inclusion."
Finally, the Select Board responded to last week's release by the Attorney General's Office of its findings on an Open Meeting Law complaint
against the board.
Daley thanked resident Janice Loux for raising the issues with the AGO and said that, in accordance with the AGO's direction, the emails at issue in the complaint will be appended to the minutes of Monday's meeting.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Williamstown assessor Chris Lammare in some references.
Tags: fiscal 2023, tax classification,