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Stockbridge board abandons ‘divisive’ tax shift to benefit full-time vs. seasonal homeowners

aerial photo of Stockbridge Town Hall (copy)

An aerial view of Stockbridge Town Hall. 

STOCKBRIDGE — Patrick White has declared his residential tax exemption idea for Stockbridge “off the table.”

The proposal would have shifted more of the real estate tax burden to seasonal property owners, reducing it for most full-time residents. It aroused strong opposition from his two Select Board colleagues, Ernest “Chuck” Cardillo and Jamie Minacci, and from many town residents, including 277 who signed a petition against it.

“This conversation ... is done, obviously,” White told the panel last week. But he and the other board members agreed to explore enhancements of existing tax-deferral and discount options for consideration at annual town meeting next spring.

Ahead of the decision to abandon the tax-shift idea, which is opposed by the Finance Committee, White listed “must-have” big-ticket commitments facing the town over the next few years — a total of $35 million for infrastructure and school projects, he estimated.

Shifting the tax burden to people with more means would be one way to go, White said. He cited a Berkshire Regional Planning Commission study showing that second-home owners in Stockbridge have a median income of $250,000 — more than four times above the median for full-time residents.

But Cardillo disagreed, saying the Finance Committee and town administrator have a plan to control impact on the tax rate. “If we plan it right, the way things have been going in this town, and we budget it right, Stockbridge is very financially stable and I think it always will be,” he said.

“As selectmen, we represent everybody in town, every taxpayer, everybody who lives in the town,” he said. “Our decision has to be made for the whole town. I treat everybody equally. This town would not let anybody lose a house over taxes. We always have ways. To put the town through this would be a disaster, a mistake, and would divide the town in multiple ways and it would not be a benefit.”

Backing up Cardillo, board member Minacci called the residential tax exemption idea “divisive, crippling, I’m not for it. It’s a shifting and I don’t want to be put in the position of saying who can afford it and who can’t. I can’t make those kinds of value judgments.”

Minacci voiced gratitude for seasonal homeowners. “They’re here half-time, they paint their houses, they hire people.”

Noting that the Thursday meeting was well-attended — with 20 people in person and 40 on Zoom — White said: “We’ve got a whole lot of people to tell me what an idiotic idea I had. That’s OK!”

He touted the need for continued participation in town government, especially by seasonal residents, who represent more than half of the town’s homeowners.

Ways to save

During last week’s Select Board meeting, Town Administrator Michael Canales presented a range of existing state and local property tax discounts and exemptions available to eligible and qualified property owners.

With additional information provided by Principal Assessor Michael Blay, these include:

• A tax deferral program for residents 65 or older with a maximum income of $20,000 per household, single or married, with no restriction on assets, placing a lien on the property to be paid to the town when the home is sold or the owner dies. But it carries an 8 percent annual interest rate. The state law’s income maximum can be increased by a town meeting vote up to $60,000, and the interest rate can be reduced to near zero.

• Aid for elderly disabled full-time residents ages 60 or older, a program offered by the town, with income limits of $24,980 for one, $33,820 for two or $42,600 for three per household, with a $48,000 asset limit, not including property value, providing a real estate tax exemption up to $1,000.

• A temporary hardship tax deferral for home-owning residents of any age, for up to three years in a row.

• An exemption of $500 for seniors 70 and older who have been legal residents of Massachusetts for 10 years or more and have owned and occupied the property for at least 5 years. The program offers deductions based on various eligible income levels and assets limited to $51,000 or $54,826 if married, with value of real estate not included in those limits. Town meeting voters can reduce age eligibility or increase the exemption amount.

• A potential citizens’ work-off abatement program for anyone 60 or older, based on a $15 an hour wage up to 40 hours weekly, with a property tax discount of up to $600, possibly to be increased to $1,500.

• Surviving spouse or a minor with a parent deceased who owns and occupies the property as their legal residence, or a homeowner at least 70 years old who has owned and occupied the property as their legal residence for at least five years: An exemption ranging from $175 to $368.

• Veterans with a service-connected disability can qualify from $400 to a full exemption from property taxes, requiring a VA certificate of proof.

• Legally blind legal residents can claim a discount of up to $500 from annual property tax bills.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com.

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