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Williamstown Fin Comm, Select Board Talk Need to Grow Tax Base
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:06AM / Monday, January 29, 2024
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Residents carry a higher tax burden than people in surrounding towns, and the problem will only get worse unless the town sees more development.
That was the message from the chair of the Finance Committee during her panel's joint meeting with the Select Board last week.
Melissa Cragg framed her remarks with a five-page memo she wrote outlining the current conditions for Williamstown taxpayers.
The main takeaways: Williamstown's property tax burden per residence ranks in the top third in the commonwealth and second out of 32 communities in Berkshire County. And the town's per capita spending per resident (removing its 2,000 resident college students) is $4,143 — 15 percent higher than the county average of $3,601.
"Virtually all of the disparity between towns like Williamstown, Lenox, Great Barrington and West Stockbridge and the countywide average has to do with education and public safety spending," Cragg wrote.
She noted in Monday's meeting that she did not want or expect Williamstown to change its long-standing practice of placing a high priority on funding the public schools.
But Cragg did have some thoughts on the revenue side of the town's balance sheet.
"Taxpayers can expect their taxes to grow by whatever the budget increases," Cragg said. "Our expenses have been growing over the last 20 years at a compound annual growth rate of 3.6 percent per year. The only two things mitigating that percentage annual increase on tax bills is new growth — either in property taxes or excise taxes or some combination of both.
"The more property taxpayers that we have to spread this budget over, the more manageable taxable increases will be. The same thing with higher excise taxes, and where excise taxes come from are things other than property taxes like hotels, motels, cars, boats."
The joint meeting of the two bodies was advertised as a discussion of fiscal year 2025 budget priorities, but much of the conversation centered around how to follow Cragg's advice and grow the local tax base for fiscal years well into the future.
The conversation echoed a meeting the Finance Committee had last spring.
Fred Puddester, who serves on the Finance Committee, said the town has a reputation as being a difficult place to develop properties and needs to find out why in order to make changes.
"I don't think we reach out," Puddester said. "Maybe we do. I'm sure the staff does. But I don't think the boards reach out to the [developers] who are doing great work in Pittsfield and North Adams and Adams in redevelopment and find out, 'Why aren't you here?' What is it about our zoning bylaw that makes it difficult?
"It is hard. Trust me, I have a lot of experience in this, hard to build economically in Williamstown. … You've got to reach out to those guys and say, 'Why don't you come here?' And maybe we'll disagree with them. But at least we've got to find out why they aren't coming."
The Planning Board has in recent years developed multiple bylaw amendments designed to open the door to new residential development by, for example, allowing greater density. Those efforts have had mixed results at town meeting, which has the final say on zoning bylaw changes.
Fin Comm member Michael Sussman, alluding to the fact that many in town government see the need to grow the tax base, said those officials need to do more to convince the wider population.
"We're talking among ourselves," Sussman said. "The town isn't hearing this. Even though it's on Willinet, the townspeople aren't hearing this. Do we want a special town meeting or something? The people who make the decisions aren't hearing about the problems. The only way I know to do that is a special town meeting."
Paula Consolini of the Finance Committee suggested that the town convene a task force to look at the issues Puddester was talking about and bring its findings to the wider community, perhaps to achieve consensus around the need to promote growth.
Andrew Hogeland, who serves on the Select Board and represents the town to the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said Williamstown's quest for growth is not unique.
"This conversation is not dissimilar from what I'm hearing from people all over the state," Hogeland said. "They all want to attract economic development. They all want to build housing. They all quite don't know how to do it. We're not alone. We're also not special in that way. We're special to ourselves and special to me, but we're not special to people who live 50 miles from here.
"And they're our competitors for things."
As for the near term concern, the FY25 budget that the Finance Committee will begin considering at its Feb. 21 meeting, Town Manager Robert Menicocci offered some hints at what is to come, including a couple of bright spots, like lower than budgeted utilities costs in the current fiscal year that ends on June 30.
On the other hand, Menicocci said the town is looking at contractual obligations that will include a 3 percent increase in staffing costs, and the town is keeping an eye on the impact of inflation.
"On the revenue side, I absolutely agree that with our monolithic source of revenue, we need to diversify that," Menicocci said. "There are ways to go about that. Economic development will be one of them, for sure, and we're focusing some energy on that. We can do a little bit of it, but we'll have to be creative. We're lucky we have the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission to call upon to help us with those efforts.
"While doing this, we're also reaching out to our neighbors to get some projects moving around the tourism end of things and doing whatever we can to offer assistance to our neighbors to get some stalled-ish projects moving again.
Menicocci said new growth in the tax base in FY24 is about a quarter of what it was last year; "still better than the alternative, which is none," he added. But he said revenue from the rooms and meals tax is performing better than expected.
"On the downside, there's the whole cannabis situation," Menicocci said. "Definitely the impact fee is gone. It's never coming back. On the excise tax, it's down. Utilization is down. I think we see more facilities coming online in general, but we also see bordering communities in other states coming online, so that's going to have that number also coming down."
In general, Menicocci told the two panels what he has in the past told the Select Board: He is pressing his departments to bring forward a bare-bones budget for the next fiscal year.
"My direction to department heads is what was mentioned earlier: We're lean. Don't ask for anything," he said. "This is really about a maintenance budget."
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