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Hawley assessors/My Turn: Toward a fiscal collapse

The Hawley Board of Assessors finds New England Forestry Foundation’s response to the Supreme Judicial Court ruling in their favor (Recorder, June 11), to be, at best, disingenuous.

We will not dwell on our conviction that the Appellate Tax Board was, in 2011, correct in its determination that NEFF’s behavior did not, in fact, meet the minimum criteria for tax exemption of its Hawley property based on standard, time-honored definitions of “charitable.”

Nor will the board decry the judicial activism that will likely exert a corrosive influence on land use policy for decades to come. Our opinions of the Supreme Judicial Court’s May 15 ruling, no matter how legitimately informed by established Department of Revenue guidelines they may be, have no power or weight to erase the court’s error — an error that reached much further than the questions of the case warranted.

No, the board needs only advise voters and taxpayers of the more-populated regions of the commonwealth that a future day-trip to western Massachusetts may be cut short by an “Out of Business” sign. That prospect is exactly what has always been at the heart of New England Forestry Foundation Vs. Board of Assessors of the Town of Hawley. The ruling, taken to an obvious and logical conclusion, will cause a chronic depletion of taxable rural property on the rolls, followed by the disintegration of a municipality’s ability to operate and, finally, the fiscal collapse of towns like Hawley, whose budgets are already crafted with almost Depression-era thrift.

As the wealthier, more politically powerful towns, typically in eastern Massachusetts, are enjoying the clean air and water the west provides, we hope they realize that their own taxes are likely to rise to accommodate their share of the pending bailout of dozens of small towns to the tune of millions of dollars. While the court is not wrong to say that charitable work performed by charitable organizations “relieve(s) the burdens of government,” some identifiable charitable work must actually occur for municipalities to enjoy the relief. More importantly, the charitable endeavor must be relevant, needed and quantifiable.

If a nonprofit organization, “Ice Cubes for Inuits, International,” were created to provide free ice cubes for Inuits, Yupiks, Aleuts and others living above the 65th Parallel, few people would suggest that its work merited tax-exempt status. We wish this scenario were strictly humorous; in truth, the notion that more of Hawley’s forest needs to be placed under conservation restriction with accompanying tax exemption is not far from that absurd analogy. Hawley is made up of 49.5 percent tax exempt land (19,277.7 acres). Of this, 72 percent (13,897 acres) belongs to the commonwealth. Incidentally, this does not include the 120 acres owned by NEFF. Adding in those acres, Hawley is now 49.8 percent exempt.

Most of this exempt land is forest land. Adding to that the properties under Chapter 61, 61A, Conservation Restrictions and Agricultural Preservation Restriction (another 14,140 acres), brings the total non-developable land in Hawley to 85.95 percent, leaving only 14.05 percent of the land in Hawley as residential land. If the ratio of taxable land to necessary town services (public safety, roads, schools, etc.) grows more dismal, the remaining property owners who do not, cannot or choose not, to receive exemptions will end up shouldering a larger and larger share of the burden.

All but the most affluent land owners may ultimately grow intolerant of the injustice and leave town. Certainly, young families, seniors on fixed incomes, and farmers can’t be expected to make up for budgetary bleed-outs caused by organizations like NEFF, who only now says that it is ready to “redouble (its) efforts to help rural towns ...” (Sorry, but if you multiply any number by zero — what Hawley now gets from NEFF — the result will always be zero.)

Of the seven “tangible efforts” that NEFF’s charitable status “could enable (them) to undertake” to help rural communities, only ONE is a proposal to help municipalities figure out how to keep the lights on: sell timber from town-owned land.

Really?

First, Hawley and other towns don’t actually own much forested land to begin with; towns are trying to keep land in taxable circulation. Second, Hawley could do lots of things to make money if the town could make the case that turning natural resources into revenue streams was consistent with our mission. We could open up a sand and gravel quarry. We could start bottling spring water. Heck, we could even start selling hay. The problem is, a municipality’s main function is not to go into business to compete with other entities who are already creating jobs, and paying taxes.

The town’s entire organizational structure exists to provide necessary services to the entire public at a cost that is distributed among land owners through fair and just taxation. NEFF exacerbates the tax problem by reducing a town’s taxable land. Despite NEFF’s spate of suggestions about the additional projects it could do to make better use of the tax dollars that it has taken from small towns like Hawley, it is most interesting to note what NEFF has NOT done.

NEFF’s Hawley property is not under any form of conservation restriction whatsoever. The forest could be sold, obliterate, and turned into a subdivision tomorrow. So, they now enjoy unique and exclusive status in Hawley, while the rest of the town’s landowners take the weight and feel the economic pressure and begin to think about forfeiting their property rights via the sale of restrictions that would limit their options, and those of their children, in perpetuity.

Other organizations, including the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, voluntarily contribute a Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) to the Towns where they have holdings. This arrangement acknowledges the reality that keeping the roads paved can’t be paid for with clean air and water, and keeping them plowed can’t be done by carbon sequestration. Certainly, after the sale of roughly $35,000 worth of timber from NEFF’s Hawley parcel, a $172 PILOT wouldn’t break the bank. But as this slow-motion disaster develops, Massachusetts legislators will be on the hot seat, struggling to answer increasingly incensed questions about how they could have allowed the western half of the commonwealth to decline, falling victim to policy-making from the Bench in Boston.

We can only hope that our legislators will act to correct this travesty.

Henry Eggert, Rick Kean and Jason Velazquez are Hawley assessors.

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