West Tisbury sets tax rate, considers rate changes


West Tisbury selectmen last week unanimously approved a hike in the property tax rate for fiscal year 2011. Property owners will see the increase when tax bills are mailed at the end of December.

The increase, from $4.46 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation to $4.73, applies to all residential and commercial property.

Two contributors to the increase, according to town assessor Kristina West: a 1.5 percent increase in the tax levy — that is, the amount to be raised from taxation — and a four percent decrease in the assessed value of property in West Tisbury.

At the annual tax rate hearing, held before the selectmen’s vote on December 8, board of assessors Mike Colaneri, Bob Mone, and Richard Cohen asked the selectmen to consider adopting a property taxation program that shifts the formula so that commercial properties pay a higher rate than residential property owners.

Doing so would also create a new exemption program, so that residents claiming West Tisbury as their primary residence would pay less in property taxes than seasonal residents, because the assessed value of the property could be discounted by as much as 20 percent.

Currently 14 of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, including Tisbury, use a residential to commercial tax-shift formula and residential exemption. The idea, suggested a year ago and the subject of a public forum held during the summer, attracted little attention. Only four persons attended the forum.

“Under the residential exemption,” Ms. West said, “residents with lower property values would receive a greater reduction in their taxes than owners of higher value properties. And those residents who have the most valuable properties will, like non-residents, pay more.”

The average home value in West Tisbury is now $947,000, Ms. West said. “The residential exemption is geared toward communities like ours that have a high number of second-home owners, and the range of property values is significant.”

The assessors said they are officially taking a neutral position regarding the tax shift and residential exemption proposals, but they urged the selectmen to begin discussions.

Mr. Cohen said,”When we first started talking about this my first reaction was that I did not like the residential exemption, because I always felt that in Vineyard Haven it wasn’t fair. But after hearing the arguments about it, I switched my position and basically became neutral about it.”

Mr. Mone said, “Not that I am in favor of it, but I am still in the kind of flux. I am not against it anymore.”

Mr. Colaneri said, “This is an option for the community, and I think this might be the time for the board to seriously consider such an option. There are a lot of working class people out there that could use a few extra bucks, and I do not think it would be that great a burden to the others.”

Selectman Jeffrey (“Skipper”) Manter said he opposed the residential exemption as well as shifting the tax burden to commercial property. “Such a small percentage of our property is business that any change, they will just pass it along to us. That doesn’t make any sense to me. I think it is important to have one number.”

Cynthia Mitchell, a former assessor, said,”It would represent a pretty significant change in how it is has been done.” Ms. Mitchell also said she would be reluctant to make a change without getting feedback from year-round residents.

Town administrator Jennifer Rand suggested putting some information in the annual tax bills and providing a way that opinions could be registered through the town website. Selectman chairman Richard Knabel said a nonbinding resolution could be put on the warrant at the annual town meeting in the spring.

The selectmen agreed to defer until next year the discussion of the shift for the FY 2012 budget, when opportunities could be created to hear the opinions of residential and commercial property owners.

In other town business, town clerk Tara Whiting administered the oath of office to newly appointed police Chief Dan Rossi. For the one minute it took for Ms. Whiting to read the oath and for Mr. Rossi to say “I do,” the town hall meeting room was filled with Mr. Rossi’s family, friends, and members of the town’s public safety community.

The selectmen retroactively approved the November 15 to December 29 commercial shellfishing season. The days and limits remain the same. Ms. Rand said that the shellfish committee forgot to ask approval of those dates from the selectmen before the season began. She said she reminded the committee to do so next year.

Ms. Mitchell asked the selectmen to sign a letter in support of the Island Health Care center plan to change its designation from a rural health clinic to a community health center. If approved by the federal government, funding grants are available for which Island Health Care is not currently eligible. Ms. Mitchell is the Island Health Care executive director. Mr. Knabel and Mr. Manter signed the letter.

Mr. Knabel announced the resignation of Tri-Town Ambulance service chief Bob Bellinger. Mr. Bellinger, hired in June, accepted the position of deputy chief and Tri-Town officials intend to advertise for a new chief in January.

The selectmen acknowledged the resignation of Judy Crawford, who is stepping down from the conservation commission.

And, the selectmen also announced they’ve cancelled their December 22 meeting.