Hilltowns have a little list for state

Recorder Staff
Published: 12/2/2016 10:10:45 PM

CHARLEMONT — The town’s new 3 percent recreation tax, approved by annual town meeting voters last spring, must get Legislative approval by Jan. 3 to take effect this summer; current state PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) is inadequate, and Buckland is still getting lost in state records because most of its residents share a ZIP code with Shelburne.

These were among dozens of concerns brought up in Charlemont’s Small Town Summit Thursday night, as about 14 town officials from several western towns talked about issues that concern them most.

Many are to attend this morning’s Western Massachusetts Legislative Summit at the John F. Kennedy Middle School in Northampton, with Senate President Stan Rosenberg, to address small town changes and pending legislative changes for 2017-2019.

Broadband, as always, was chief among the concerns, as several people worried that commercial internet service providers will not find wiring the hilltowns a profitable enough venture. Town officials are concerned that commercial providers would “cherry pick” the most profitable towns, leaving the rest to build broadband networks that are too expensive for average residents to subscribe to.

“Fifty-three percent of our land is now tax-exempt, state-owned or under Chapter 61,” said Darlene McVeigh of Huntington. Hawley and Charlemont officials agreed that more than half the land in their towns is also tax exempt or under tax reductions for conservation restrictions.

“Chapter 61 is the state’s idea to preserve land,” said Hawley Selectman Hussain Hamdan. “It’s their program, but the tax comes out of town taxes.” Hamdan suggested legislation that either the landowner pays the full town tax rate and gets a Chapter 61 state subsidy, or the town gets a state subsidy to compensate for the lost tax revenue.

Cummington Selectman Jim Drawe suggested a “circuit breaker” to raise the tax rate on land under Chapter 61 conservation restrictions as the percentage of protected land increases beyond a certain level.

The group also wanted action on an ambulance bill for rural towns, that would allow an ambulance to respond to an emergency with one EMT and a driver who is not necessarily an EMT. Current state law requires two EMTs to go out to each call. In the most rural areas, two volunteer EMTs are not always available for emergencies.

Charlemont Selectman Beth Bandy said the town’s new 3 percent recreation tax, approved by town meeting voters in June, must be approved by the Legislature before Jan. 3, or it dies.

Other issues that are priorities for the hilltowns include:

Keeping school transportation regional reimbursement as close to 100 percent as possible. The law says the state should fund it at that level, but some legislators are trying to change it.

More flexibility in the open meeting law. Some present said advance posting requirements and other rules inhibit brainstorming and the flexibility to deliberate immediately on some issues.

Short-term borrowing. Hingham secured legislation allowing one-year borrowing for 20 years, plus the ability to make principal payments at any time. It has passed in the House of Representative, but this group wants to see the measure approved in the Senate.

Re-using school buildings with low enrollment. McVeigh reported that when Gateway Regional School District closed three school buildings, around 2010, the district had to repay $327,000 to the state School Building Authority because the loans for school building improvements had not been paid off when the buildings closed. Heath Selectman Sheila Litchfield said Heath’s school building has been paid off, and currently Heath is considering whether to tuition its elementary students to Hawlemont or to Rowe.


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