LENOX — Thanks to robust new growth in the value of commercial and residential property, the town’s taxpayers can look forward to bills essentially unchanged, on average, from the past year.
That’s the bottom line from the Select Board’s data-rich annual tax classification hearing Wednesday. After a presentation by Administrative Assessor Randy Austin, the board voted unanimously to keep the traditional split rate for taxation.
For fiscal 2021, it will be $11.65 per thousand dollars of assessed value for single-family homes and $14.06 per thousand for commercial and industrial properties.
Commercial, industrial and personal property taxes are collected at a higher rate than for residences, as Lenox is one of the county’s few towns to maintain that distinction.
“We’ve had a good amount of new growth,” said Thomas Romeo, chairman of the Board of Assessors, with $515,000 in annual collections added to the tax rolls, compared with $192,000 added the previous year.
He credited the completion of the Miraval Berkshires conversion of the former Cranwell resort, and the startup of a major lodging and residential expansion at Blantyre, which bodes well for additional growth next year.
The owner of the average residential property valued at $426,516, up 3 percent from the previous year, can expect a tax bill of $4,969 for the 2021 fiscal year, a decline of $27 from the previous year.
The median assessed valuation for a single-family home is $342,800, Austin told the board members, a 4.5 percent increase over last year. The typical tax bill of $3,993 is up $34 from last year. The median represents the midpoint in values for all single-family residences.
The town’s total properties, residential, commercial and industrial, are worth well over $1 billion — $1,350,959,650, to be exact, Austin pointed out. The values are based on assessments compiled in 2019, he noted.
“With COVID, it has been a difficult year, and we’ve had a lot of requests from businesses for help,” Austin acknowledged in response to a question from Selectman Edward Lane.
“During the next fiscal year, 2022, is when people can see relief if the values of their businesses are affected,” Austin explained. “It’s an important point; we can’t react as quickly as we’d like to with the extreme situation we have going on right now.”
He noted that the Board of Assessors, including members Paula King and Wayne Lemanski, have to “do business as usual” based on property valuations compiled two years ago.
Because of the new growth added to the annual 2.5 percent increase in the town’s total tax levy allowed by the state’s Proposition 2½ law, the town’s total amount of spending available for taxation purposes is $19,395,000, an increase of $975,000 over the current year.
As Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen pointed out, annual town meeting voters theoretically could approve additional spending of $3,388,000 without bumping up against the limit of allowable taxation.
“That’s stunning,” he said. “We’re doing a lot better, demonstrating the fiscal responsibility of the Select Board, School Committee, Finance Committee and town meeting.
“With the effects of new growth and town meeting voters passing a budget with no increase in the town’s property tax levy, the net result is a not-insignificant reduction in the tax rate for the town to a level we haven’t seen in quite some time,” Ketchen stated.
Any additional spending would require a higher tax rate, he cautioned.
“You can be proud of achieving it,” he told the Select Board, “but we need to be cautious and disciplined going forward.”
Select Board Chairman Neal Maxymillian cited reports from local Realtors that the town’s available home inventory is at an all-time low because of a spike in second-home buyers and new residents from urban areas relocating to Lenox because of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to Austin, the increase is not “a huge wave; it’s happening, but not to the degree people may think. I’ve seen a little bit, but not to the magnitude people are talking about.”
Ahead of the vote to continue the split tax rate, Lane observed that “this is not the year, with so many unknowns over the next couple of years, to veer too much off course with what we’ve been doing all along, the division between the commercial and residential rates. We should keep as steady a course as we can.”
Maxymillian sounded a similar note, stating that “we really don’t know how the aftershock of this pandemic will filter through, so, I agree, now is not the year to change our approach.”
As Select Board member Marybeth Mitts observed, “We’re very lucky that we have outstanding departments across the board in town and the fact that our housing stock is well-kept by residents. Total single-home values continue to creep up, but our tax rate has not climbed precipitously, it stays relatively the same, also for the commercial district.”