Tisbury selectmen concluded a tax rate classification hearing Tuesday for fiscal year 2015 with a unanimous vote to maintain the existing property tax formula for residential and commercial property. Selectmen made no change in the residential exemption that results in a portion of the tax levy being shifted from qualifying taxpayers domiciled in Tisbury to the tax bills for non-resident property owners.
The hearing had been continued from December 9 when selectmen learned that the state Department of Revenue had not yet certified town figures used to compute the tax levy. “At 2:30 pm today we received an email from the Bureau of Local Assessment stating that we had received final certification,” assistant assessor Ann Marie Cywinski told selectmen at the start of the meeting.
Ms. Cywinski confirmed Tuesday night that the tax rate for fiscal 2015, which began June 30, 2014, would be $8.92 for residential property and $8.34 for commercial property.
Selectman chairman Jonathan Snyder opened the hearing by reading four taxpayer letters into the record. Letter writers spoke in support of the current formula that benefits year-round residents at the expense of seasonal homeowners.
A letter signed by Janet Woodcock and Carol Collins stated: “The tax exemption recognizes the vast financial difference between those having second vacation homes here and those of us who are here year round working and adding to the community.”
Letter writer Cynthia Richard said it was a matter of fairness. “I believe over the years that it has been a substantial financial help to year round residents of Tisbury with moderately valued homes,” she wrote. “It’s truly a matter of fairness. It is a break to a group of people who do not normally receive tax breaks. Businesses and non-residents feel it is unfair to them because they are not entitled to this tax break while the rest of us are excluded from those that they receive. I would also point out that the fiscal year 2014 tax rate for commercial properties was $7.85 per thousand while the rate for all residential and non-residential properties was higher at $8.39. Is that fair?”
Sherman and Susan Goldstein, owners of the Mansion House, said the current tax structure has enabled the Mansion House to continue its “program of upkeep and beautification.”
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 1,045 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.
Non-residents also pay a personal property or personal chattel tax equal to 4.5 percent of the value of their buildings. Persons claiming Tisbury residence do not. Ms. Cywinski said that the precise term for having Tisbury residence is domiciled in Tisbury. “You have to file income taxes from Tisbury in order to benefit from the residential exemption,” she said.
The exemption was originally adopted in 1988 at 10 percent and increased in 1989 by the selectmen serving at that time to 20 percent, the maximum the state allows.
Last year, on a motion from Mr. Snyder, selectmen voted to lower the percentage to 18 percent.
Speaking to the issue at the November meeting, Mr. Snyder said, “I’ve always been troubled by the fact that the residential exemption shifts the tax burden onto the homeowners who are not voters, who have no say in the matter, and who are essentially taxed without a voice in the matter.”
Selectmen discussed the residential exemption and noted the lack of input from seasonal taxpayers.
“I think the preponderance of residential comments that I heard, and I didn’t hear a lot from summer people for whatever reason,” selectman Tristan Israel said, “was to keep this residential exemption and keep it strong. I think it’s tough making a go here for all of us. I think this really helps.”
Mr. Israel spoke to the issue of personal choice. “When someone owns a home here and owns a home off Island, for whatever reason, they have a choice,” he said. “In other words, they’re not being excluded from residential exemption. If they were to live here six months out of the year they can have that residential exemption… people have a choice about where they want to call their home, where they want to pay taxes, what community they want to support, if you have two homes.”
Freshman selectman Melinda Loberg said she would be in favor of a reduction in the percentage but favored the exemption. “I like the residential exemption,” she said. “I think it serves a good purpose. I was listening to our tax assessor talk about what the impact the [exemption] has on the town and I think that it should gradually diminish — not to zero but to some 10 percent like she recommended. But I think it’s a bad time to do it this year.”
Mr. Snyder repeated his reservation about the tax structure but stood with the board. “It has always felt to me a bit unfair to tax one group of homeowners more than another,” Mr. Snyder said, “but I agree with Tristan that we have heard a great deal from residents and very little from non-residents about this issue and I’m not sympathetic to going up but I would also agree that holding at 18 percent is fine. “
Selectmen voted in favor of the existing formula for residential properties and turned to commercial properties and a potential re-imposition of a commercial shift that would impose a higher tax rate.
“Well I don’t think it’s an imposition but it’s a right of the town to do it if it chooses to do it and I would always like to reserve that right,” said Mr. Israel. “We have equalized. I think that’s fine for now. Most of the comments I heard from businesses were to keep it that way so for now I think that’s a good idea.”
Ms. Loberg said it appears that businesses are getting preferred treatment by having a tax rate that is slightly lower than the residential tax rate. “That’s all the effect of the exemption. So in order to, you know, really equalize the tax rate all the way across the board we would have to impose a shift onto the businesses, correct?” she said.
“I also favor keeping the commercial shift at zero,” Mr. Snyder said. “I think that one thing that we don’t often talk about is how much this town depends on a healthy commercial sector. As taxpayers go, the commercial businesses are a fairly small part of our total real estate taxes, but they provide a great deal of the economic impetus in this town — provide jobs, provide reasons for people to come here — and I think we need to be very supportive of those businesses. So I would also support keeping the commercial shift where it is.”
The board then voted for no change in the commercial tax rate.
In other business, Fire Chief John Schilling and Ambulance Coordinator Tracy Jones asked selectmen to endorse a contract under which the town will provide EMT Maxwell Moreis with tuition funding for off-Island paramedic training if he works for the town for two years.
“We’ve been filling the schedule with per diem paramedics from the Cape and the South Shore,” said Chief Schilling, “couple from Falmouth, one from Fall River, one Centerville/Osterville, one from Hingham. They come over to work 24-hour shifts. They fill in the schedule. We haven’t had any full-time employees and of course we’re still actively looking for another full-time employee but we can’t sit around and wait for somebody to walk through the door.”
Selectmen endorsed the contract.
Chief Schilling also asked selectmen to support using embarkation fee funds to purchase new radios. “The radios we’re presently using in the fire department were purchased in 2000,” he said. “They have very limited programming capability.”
As an example, Chief Schilling stated that a catastrophic incident at the Steamship Authority requiring National Guard medical evacuations would find Tisbury unable to communicate with the evacuators.
Mr. Snyder asked Police Chief Daniel Hanavan if selectmen should anticipate a similar request from the police department in the future.
“Our radios are older technology,” Chief Hanavan said. “We’re going to have to upgrade as well.”
Tisbury Police Lt. Eerik Meisner also proposed embarkation fees be spent on a network of police-controlled video cameras that would monitor the vicinity of the Steamship Authority terminal and Five Corners.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that selectmen took no action on the request to fund tuition for EMT Maxwell Moreis. Selectmen endorsed the contract. The story also incorrectly spelled the name of Mr. Moreis as Maurice.