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Decline in grand list concerns town officials

Taxes go up for homeowners, down for non-residential properties

BRATTLEBORO—Taxes will go up for homeowners and down for nonresidential properties for fiscal year 2012, according to outgoing Finance Director John Leisenring, who presented the homestead and nonresidential tax rates to the Selectboard last week.

The board unanimously approved the rates: $2.6499 per $100 for homeowners, and $2.5276 per $100 for nonresidents.

Property owners within Brattleboro’s Downtown Improvement District will pay an additional $0.1369 per $100 in taxes.

These total rates will generate over $12 million for the municipal operating budget, $10,000 toward Brattleboro Climate Change, and $22,834 for local tax exemptions voted on in Representative Town Meeting, said Leisenring.

According to Leisenring, the rates break out to $1.1199 per $100 for the municipal budget. The education portion for residential properties is $1.5300 and $1.4077 for nonresidential.

The homestead tax decreased by 1.5 cents from last year’s rate of $1.5408. The nonresidential property tax decreased 5 cents from last year’s $1.4645.

Town Manager Barbara Sondag said last year’s town-wide reappraisal played a part in influencing the rate change.

After the reappraisal, she said, the town’s common level of appraisal (CLA) changed from .9298 percent out of 100 to .9661 percent.

According to Lister Albert Jerard, the higher the CLA percentage, the lower the tax rate. The state uses a CLA to help determine rates for its education funding system. The CLA ensures similar properties are assessed at the same rate across all municipalities, he said.

The state determines a town’s CLA percentage by comparing local home values against the state’s home market values. The closer the CLA is to 100 percent, the more in line the town’s assessment is to the state’s market, said Jerard.

Sondag said the CLA represented some savings because Brattleboro properties for this year were appraised on a “more accurate accounting” than the averages the state uses in between appraisals. The state assumes an annual 3-percent increase to a town’s Grand List, she said.

But the lower CLA also means Brattleboro’s Grand List has declined by $1.4 million, said Leisenring.

“That’s the most distressing news,” said Sondag. “It is a significant matter.”

According to Sondag, despite the addition of Commonwealth Diary to the rolls this year, the town took hits to the value of the grand list.

The Brooks House fire, “bankruptcy issues” for individuals at the American Building on Main Street, and the solid waste district shifting to a pilot plan all contributed to reduced Grand List, said Sondag.

Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray felt a 3 percent annual growth for Brattleboro’s Grand List was “unrealistic.”

If business grew that fast, Brattleboro wouldn’t look like Brattleboro, he said. Still, a shrinking list is not good, he said.

In a separate interview, DeGray said that over the past three years, previous Selectboards have discussed the Grand List’s limited growth.

As the Grand List dwindles, more and more of the tax burden shifts to taxpayers, DeGray said, noting that the Selectboard has kept municipal expenses down and has strived for a level-funded budget to counteract the lack of business and industrial taxes.

Still, he said, the town needs another stream of revenue not directly tied to taxpayers.

DeGray has long proposed a 1 percent sales tax in Brattleboro. He said the tax would take advantage of monies spent by Brattleboro’s visitors, much as the rooms and meals tax does.

The revenue from that tax funnels to the capital plan.

And visitors would continue to flock to Brattleboro and not skip off to Keene if the town had a 1 percent tax, DeGray predicted.

“They come to Brattleboro because it’s unique. Not because it’s got a Target or a Walmart,” he said.

On a sobering note, DeGray said, residents should communicate with their Selectboard. The board needs to know which municipal services residents could relinquish.

“You cannot cut your way out of the problem we have with revenue,” DeGray said.

He said despite school contract negotiations or salary freezes, eventually employees need raises. A time will come when a level-funded budget will be out of the question.

“Their [the school district] spending affects us,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #109 (Wednesday, July 13, 2011).

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