In the Arena: Split-rate tax showdown
If the Greenfield Town Council does vote next week to split the tax rate for the first time in history, it is going to take nine votes to make it happen.
That’s because Greenfield Mayor Bill Martin has already called his shot, informing the council this week that he will veto any attempt to ditch the “factor of one” rate in favor of a split system that charges a higher rate to commercial and industrial property owners.
“I felt like in the spirit of openness that it was important to let them know how I feel about this,” Martin said. “I’ve been researching this myself and I believe this is a bad move for the town.
“All you have to do is take a ride down Federal and Main streets to see that businesses are hurting right now, and all this is going to do is shift more of the tax burden onto their shoulders, and that’s not a good idea.”
Martin’s promise of a veto would appear to all but guarantee that Greenfield will continue to pay one tax rate. While a simple majority of seven council votes is all that is needed to split the rate, it would take nine votes to override a Martin veto and most council observers, including President David Singer, don’t believe there is that much support to make the change at this time.
“I’d be very surprised if there are nine votes there for an override,” Singer said. “I’m not sure there are enough votes there even to pass it in the first place.”
Still, Singer feels the debate is an important one to have, and took issue with Martin’s criticism that the proposal was brought forward “at the 11th hour.”
“That’s simply not the case,” Singer said. “We’ve been talking about this for a while, and Councilor (and chief split-tax proponent) Wisnewski made it clear even in the summer that this was going to be put on the debating table before we split the tax rate.
“I know there are people who have reacted strongly to this, but that is why we have these discussions — so issues like this are properly vetted, and the council gets as much information as possible so it can come to an informed decision. That’s the way our system is supposed to work.”
Speaking of the need to “be informed,” the split-tax debate has provided an opportunity for at least one member of the council to get a bit of a crash course in the relationship between tax policy and municipal finance.
During a recent Ways and Means Committee forum on the split tax proposal, board member and Precinct 7 Councilor Karen “Rudy” Renaud openly admitted — no doubt to the shock of most in attendance and watching the hearing on live television — that she had absolutely no idea what taxable personal property was or its relation to the split-tax proposal.
Renaud further went on to ask, absent a split-tax change, how the town would lower the tax burden on property owners, to which Assessor Audrey Murphy responded, almost half-laughingly, that the best way to do that is to “expand the tax base” — which has been the foundation of most of Greenfield’s development debates over the last two decades.
My intent here is not to belittle Renaud. In fact, I give her credit for trying to gather the data necessary to make that aforementioned “informed decision.” Still, it seems amazing to me that an elected official sitting on the council’s most powerful subcommittee would not have that kind of basic knowledge at their fingertips. And it leads me to wonder how many other fledgling councilors may have that same type of knowledge deficit heading into what may be one of the most critically important votes in recent memory.
I guess we’ll find that out this coming Thursday.
Town Councilor Dalton Athey III has never been shy about expressing his concerns about how the town handles its finances. And, sometimes, those rants seem to have more to do with politics than improving policy.
But Athey got it right this week when he objected to the council’s decision to shift $225,000 out of the stabilization account to the school department, with the promise that the money would be put back into that account once the town’s allotment of “free cash” for the year was certified.
“I’m not against the idea of giving the schools this money, but I feel this is an unnecessary move to make at this time,” Athey said. “There is no reason why we can’t wait one more month until that cash is certified and move it at the time.”
Athey clearly feels decisions like these are symptomatic of a larger problem with how the council handles its basic financial practices — a theme I would expect will be repeated as we head into the next budget season and, more importantly from Athey’s perspective, the election of the next council president this coming June.
Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.