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A tax break for Stockbridge residents at the expense of seasonal homeowners? Here’s a look at whether the idea could go forward

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A residential tax exemption proposal that has drawn a visceral reaction in Stockbridge could be dead before arrival. The town's Finance Committee condemned the proposal during a meeting this week.

STOCKBRIDGE — The highly controversial residential tax exemption idea floated by Select Board Chairman Patrick White last month could be dead before arrival.

At its Wednesday meeting, the town’s advisory but influential Finance Committee condemned the proposal to ease the property tax bite on most full-time residents to benefit lower-income homeowners at the expense of the town’s seasonal homeowners, all of whom would pay more.

The real estate tax exemption program, requiring a majority vote of the three-member Select Board at the annual October tax classification meeting, is based on a 1979 state law adopted by only 16 communities since then, none in western or central Massachusetts. It requires annual renewal, if approved.

The idea caused “negative blowback” and has raised “considerable objections both by part-time and full-time residents, indicating it is not truly a viable solution and it divided the town,” Finance Committee Chairman Jay Bikofsky declared. “The town would not function as a unified body on more important matters, that was pretty clear.”

The plan could reduce residential tax assessments for full-timer homeowners by up to 35 percent, regardless of their income or assets.

Other key talking points outlined by Finance Committee member Steve Shatz and Bikofsky:

• There is no data to support the reasons or the benefits of adopting the exemption.

• Housing challenges faced by cities and towns are not being solved by shifting the tax burden to part-time residents, including those with more valuable properties. The housing shortage crisis has many causes, including income and wealth inequality, anti-growth bylaws, high land prices and construction costs, as well as expensive and lengthy permitting procedures.

• Stockbridge already has two housing-assistance programs, the “old age exemption” and real-estate tax deferment until a property is sold.

• Part-time residents already shoulder more than 50 percent of the town’s tax burden, according to the Board of Assessors, and also pay a personal property tax annually.

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• The tax exemption program is a “band-aid” feel-good response and offers tax relief to many who don’t need it. Housing support through tax breaks must be need-based. 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 discussion of an age- and means-tested program.

“Basically, we’ve come away from a solution that divides the population to a multiple series of alternatives,” he declared, such as a “widow exemption,” elderly tax-deferment options and a “means-tested law” approved by five communities — Concord, Hopkinton, Redding, Sudbury and Wayland.

Shatz emphasized the advisory role of the Finance Committee on budgetary and financial issues, but pointed out that it does not establish policy for the town.

Committee member Diane Reuss blasted the residential tax exemption idea as “robbing Peter to pay Paul” and insisted “we can do better, but it’s going to take time.”

Former town administrator Jorja-Ann Marsden listed several existing exemptions for seniors that are largely unknown and need to be publicized.

“Stockbridge appears to be anything but a poor community,” said second homeowner Howard Zern, questioning tax relief for full-time residents with properties valued up to $2 million provided by a residential exemption.

Resident Bruce Auerbach called for targeted relief to low-income individuals “to be shared equally by everyone in town.” He described adoption of the exemption as “a solution that’s going to cause problems.”

Eugene Fidell commended the Finance Committee for “an extremely thoughtful exchange of views, with the openness and transparency we all strive for in this country,” a comment that drew applause from residents attending the meeting at the Town Offices.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or on Twitter @BE_cfanto

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