Editorial: Council’s hasty tax-shift decision seems reckless

Monday, November 20, 2017

What’s the rush? Did Greenfield Town Council really have to decide to shift the property tax burden from homeowners to all other property owners in town with two days’ notice and one night’s discussion?

The split tax rate, approved on a 9-2 vote last week, brings good news for homeowners. The average residential taxpayer could save $740 next fiscal year. What’s not to like about that? That is unless you own commercial or industrial property or lease a store, office or apartment in a commercial building. The split will increase the tax rate from $23.27 to $34.79 for nonresidential property owners. That, for example, will result in an increase of $204,000 in taxes for the owner of Leyden Woods — the town’s largest non-residential property owner — according to Chief Assessor Audrey Murphy.

To ease the pain for small business, the council also passed a small business exemption that would lessen the hit on properties valued at less than $1 million and those that house businesses of 10 employees or fewer.

Town Councilor Isaac Mass, who proposed the tax change, said he would prefer to lower taxes by expanding the tax base, the total amount of taxable property, but the town hasn’t seen the large-scale development that makes that happen. The other way to cut taxes is to cut spending, and most people agree the town has tightened its belt about as much as it can while maintaining basic municipal services people expect.

That’s about the extent of the impact study the council considered before making such a major decision, however. We think that was unfortunate.

Mayor William Martin’s call for delaying a decision until more information could be gathered and analyzed fell on mostly deaf ears.

Joseph Ruggeri, who serves on the Board of Assessors, also spoke against a split tax Wednesday night.

“Our feeling on the board is there is no strong evidence that shows putting the burden on the commercial properties is beneficial to the overall scheme of the tax levy,” said Ruggeri, who noted 85 percent of the town’s lots are considered residential and 15 percent are commercial.

At-large Town Councilor-elect Ashli Stempel also spoke during the public hearing, urging further study, noting, as did the mayor, that there is enough time in early 2018 to study the effects of a split rate and to allow all property taxpayers to comment.

At-Large Councilor Penny Ricketts agreed, and eventually was one of the two “no” votes.

We concur with the minority in this case. There are just too many unknowns. Will the higher commercial-industrial tax rate turn off would-be developers, the very thing that expands the tax base and lowers individual tax bills. What impact might higher bills on existing landlords and employers have on jobs and rents? No one seems to know. We found it reckless for the council to decide without trying to answer such questions, although we don’t disagree with the apparent Robin Hood motivation behind the vote.

At-Large Councilor Karen “Rudy” Renaud and Precinct 9 Councilor Daniel Leonovich argued the split rate should be seen as an experiment that can be reversed. But isn’t that a little like saying you can change the color scheme inside your house without consulting other family members because you can always repaint?

Greenfield for too long has been tarred as anti-business. Jumping into a significant tax change that targets businesses just feeds into that impression, heedlessly. The Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, and some merchants surveyed by the Recorder, feel blindsided by the hasty decision, and they, too, have called for further study.

It would have been better to make the change after careful, thorough analysis, based on numbers crunched for everyone to see. At least then the decision, whether everyone agrees, would be defensible.

Fortunately, it’s not too late. If the mayor vetoes this change, it would allow councilors to step back, to create a task force and to get the data that shows what impact a tax shift will have, what the secondary or unintended consequences might be, and what ultimately is in the best interest of the town.

Let’s take the time to do it right.