Editorial: National Grid shoe drops on Heath

  • Heath town sign. PAUL FRANZ

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Electric utilities like National Grid and FirstLight Hydro Generating Co. pay taxes on the poles, towers and generating facilities they own in each town. Every five years, the value of this infrastructure and the property it sits on is reassessed. (It used to be every three years, but in 2016, the state Department of Revenue changed a rule that required revaluation of electricity facilities from every three years to every five years.) That valuation determines the taxes paid by the utility to each town.

There is nothing cut-and-dried or “gentlemanly” about this process. It involves estimating market forces five years into the future, and applying depreciation schedules for facilities and equipment. It also involves very large sums of money. Consequently, it is the municipal version of fisticuffs.

On one side is the electricity-generating utility, which wants to pay as little as possible in local taxes. On the other side are the cash-strapped towns, whose “hired gun,” utility assessment expert GE Sansoucy PE, performs its own assessment of a town’s public utility property. Never the twain do meet. If the two sides cannot reach agreement, the final arbiter is the quasi-judicial Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board.

Caught in the middle are the taxpayers — most recently, the residents of Heath, a West County hilltown with a population of about 720. Town officials learned this spring that National Grid and affiliate utilities have declared their asset valuations for poles, equipment and high-tension towers have dropped by $3.5 million. In town hall, jaws dropped.

According to Ned Wolf, Finance Committee chairman, the 35 percent assessment drop in utility revenues means a loss of about $89,000, representing about 4.5 percent of the town’s local taxes. “During the past 15 years, there has never been an assessment drop of more than 18 percent from one year to the next,” said Wolf. “Combined with a drop of $600,000 in the preceding year, the drop in the assessed value of electric properties in Heath has been more than 40 percent.”

At Town Meeting Saturday, Heath voters confronted a sobering future. The town’s “free cash” surplus was reduced to a minuscule $12,000 to keep the tax rate down, and a 2 percent cost-of-living increase for town employees was reduced to 1 percent. The tax rate was increased by 76 cents. For a home valued at $200,000, the tax increase alone comes to $152. And that is just the beginning.

Wolf said that state Rep. Paul Mark spoke with someone from National Grid, who told him the tax valuation was based on the projected value of a long-term project to strengthen the utility towers to hold more weight; but when the upgrade had been completed, the valuation was not as high as had been estimated. Newly elected Selectboard member Gloria Fisher wasn’t buying it: “I don’t believe they over-estimated the valuation in advance. That doesn’t make sense,” she said. “We want to find out what is going on.”

So do the neighboring towns of Ashfield, Colrain, Rowe and Erving, which have also been affected, according to Heath Assessor’s Assistant Alice Wozniak. So, for that matter, do towns containing FirstLight infrastructure, such as Northfield.

As the affected towns vote whether or not to spend the money to hire Sansoucy, the next shoe to drop will probably be Sansoucy’s assessment.

We hope our elected legislators will continue to watch out for the interest of their towns in this matter and add their weight of their office behind the collective pushback of the towns themselves.