Our Opinion: Familiar pattern to tax rate debate

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The tax rate debate that unfolded at the Pittsfield City Council meeting Tuesday night will probably be the last major debate of this council session, and it fell along familiar lines in terms of the players involved and the perspective on the issue of tax hikes.

Mayor Tyer is proposing a tax increase to $19.99 per $1,000 of assessed value for residential properties and $39.96 for commercial. This comes a year after the rate dropped from $20.01 to $19.42 on the residential side and from $39.98 to $39.94 on the commercial. A narrow City Council majority rejected the proposal, arguing instead for greater use of reserve funds to lower the tax rate. The debate will resume at the next City Council session on Nov. 26. ("Tax rate debate tabled, Nov. 13).

The administration's proposed tax increase would add a little over $100 a year to the tax bill of the average residential property, an increase kept to that level by the mayor's proposal to employ $300,000 from the city's free cash fund. Opponents requested an additional $500,000 to be used from free cash to lower the tax rate.

In recent years, the city auditor has repeatedly recommended against the use of free cash to reduce the tax rate. Pittsfield in general has a history of using free cash to artificially reduce the tax rate and avoid politically difficult choices. On Tuesday night, city Finance Director Matt Kerwood noted that many economists foresee a national recession on the horizon, which is a strong argument for maintaining a reasonable reserve fund.

After a 30-minute recess, Mayor Tyer came forward with a compromise, offering to add another $250,000 from free cash to offset a portion of the tax increase. There was no compromise coming from opponents, however, and the debate ended in a deadlock.

Of the six city councilors opposed to the tax increase, several have been consistently against initiatives offered by the mayor, who last week was re-elected to a second four-year term. Four of the six will not return to the City Council next term, including Councilor at-large Melissa Mazzeo, who lost a close race for mayor on Nov. 5.

Councilor Mazzeo's assertion Tuesday night that "it's great to have a nice, big, cushy savings account" implies that the administration is irresponsibly sitting on a pile of money at taxpayers' expense. In fact, a healthy reserve in anticipation of the inevitable tough times ahead is to the benefit of city taxpayers. We urge the City Council to approve Mayor Tyer's responsible tax rate proposal at its next opportunity.

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