Tisbury selectmen defer decision on tax rate

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Photo by Rich Saltzberg

Tisbury selectmen held a public hearing on Tuesday to discuss Tisbury tax policies, specifically the residential exemption that discounts the tax bills of qualified year-round residents as opposed to non-resident property owners. They took no action.

Selectmen agreed to defer a vote on the exemption after learning that the Massachusetts Department of Revenue Bureau of Local Assessment was late in returning certified real estate values to the town of Tisbury and it would be unwise to proceed without that information.

Many of those who spoke questioned the fairness and wisdom of easing the tax burden on one class of residents at the expense of another.

Selectmen voted to continue the public hearing to next Tuesday when they meet again at 5:30 pm to accept public comment in writing.

The current Tisbury tax rate is $8.39 per $1,000 of assessed value for residential properties and $7.85 for commercial. Under current policy, the residential exemption is calculated based on a percentage, currently 18 percent, of the average value of residential property in town ($765,695) in fiscal year 2014. A total of 1,039 property owners now benefit from the residential exemption in the form of a reduction in the assessed value of their property — $137,825 last year.

Few people spoke in favor of the existing policy. Angela Cywinski, a member of the board of assessors, said that although she was a beneficiary of the residential exception, its gradual reduction was in order.

Sherman Goldstein of West Tisbury, co-owner of the Mansion House, one of the largest businesses in town, questioned the wisdom of the shift scheme overall.

“Institutionalizing classes of property is very risky,” he said. “We need to be all in this together.”

Vineyard Haven optometrist David Finkelstein, also a West Tisbury resident, pointed out how rarified Tisbury’s real estate tax structure is. Tisbury is one of only 14 municipalities in Massachusetts that employs such a tax shift scheme, he said.

Though selectmen began the hearing with the intention of voting on the residential exemption, assistant assessor Ann Marie Cywinski informed them that without a final certification of values they did not have the final numbers they needed to make a decision.

Selectmen agreed that a vote would create inaccuracies and opted to share their opinions on shifts with the audience.

Tristan Israel said he believed in the value of the residential tax exemption and hoped to convince his fellow selectmen to bolster it further. He also pointed out not all business is conducted from commercial or industrial property.

“There are other businesses that are not on Main Street,” he said. “There are plumbers; there are landscapers. There are all kinds of service people who are trying to live in our community and make a go of it. I’m very sensitive to Main Street and what’s going on, on Main Street, but there’s a larger community out there that the residential tax exception helps.”

Melinda Loberg did not indicate which way she intended to vote but emphasized how complex the subject of Tisbury’s tax shifts actually were and that fairness in apportioning them was her priority. “I’ve talked with several people in town several times who have been very patient with me in helping me understand the ramifications of the decision making that we’re going to do,” she said. “I think at the bottom line I feel as if it’s important that we have the appearance of fairness and that’s what I’m looking for is a fair tax rate.”

Chairman Jon Snyder took a stance against increasing commercial taxes and for maintaining the current residential exception.

“I always felt it was a little bit unfair to tax one group more heavily than another. I recognize that the residential exemption does help low-income families. I would support keeping it where it is now. I do think we also need to be mindful of the impact that the commercial shift would be putting on businesses. If we don’t have a vibrant business community, our whole community starts to be increasingly challenged so I would not support a commercial shift.”

DPW rumbles

In other business, a vote for a standard pay increase based off an in-house merit review of new Department of Public Works Director Glenn Mauk sparked a prolonged discussion between selectmen and town administrator John Grande about internal problems within the DPW and ineffective communication between various Tisbury departments.

“I feel as though the board of the DPW could have done a more thorough search for an evaluation,” said Ms. Loberg. “They did an in-house evaluation that did not include asking any of the departments in town. The kind of feedback I have gotten from departments in town is that they are less than satisfied with the services they have been getting from the DPW and had no opportunity to weigh in on that review.

“The second thing is that I’m also told that there are staff members at the DPW who are also eligible for their rate increases — have been for some time in some cases — and have not had the opportunity to have a review or have their increases.”

Mr. Israel questioned why the town’s personnel director was not involved in Mr. Mauk’s review.  “It’s no secret that there are tremendous personnel issues taking place at the DPW right now,” he said. “There are frictions there — issues. I’m not saying that they’re right, wrong, or indifferent.”

Mr. Snyder said that he’s received several unsolicited compliments regarding Mr. Mauk.

“I think while there is some friction in the DPW I think those frictions are being worked out,” he said. “I think we should be supportive of Mr. Mauk as well. He’s in a difficult, difficult role. He walked into a challenging situation and he’s doing as best he can.”

Selectmen voted in favor of Mr. Mauk’s pay increase. In addition they formally requested that the town administrator investigate dysfunctional communication between town departments and identify town employees eligible for review and that he report back to the board with his findings.

Lastly, Mr. Israel, who recently recovered from a protracted illness, thanked all the parties who had wished him well, including his fellow board members and the Oak Bluffs Board of Selectmen.