Brattleboro’s Grand List shows some growth

BRATTLEBORO — Town Assessor Russell Rice submitted figures to the Selectboard that showed the Grand List has increased slightly since 2005.

“It is frequently stated that our Grand List is 'stagnant' or 'shrinking,'” Rice wrote in a memo to the board. “While the first may be true, the second is not.”

“It is certainly true that a rate of growth in the neighborhood of 1 percent is not encouraging,” he continued. “But there has been some improvement this year after five years of declining rates of growth.”

In a phone interview, Rice said that he hoped that the Grand List for tax year 2012-2013 would show an increase of just over 1 percent.

“None of these numbers are signs of a vibrant, booming economy,” he said. “Light applause, please.”

During discussion at the June 6 Selectboard meeting, Chair David Gartenstein asked Rice about potential sources of additional revenue.

Gartenstein asked if there were ways to obtain contributions from non-taxed properties.

Town Manager Barbara Sondag explained that tax-exempt properties have that status due to state statute or court order.

Sondag noted that although the Brattleboro Retreat, a nonprofit entity, doesn't pay the same level of taxes on the hospital portion of the campus, it does pay taxes on its office building and other houses.

Other cities have worked with large, tax-exempt institutions to contribute more money, she said, citing the tax agreement that Boston enjoys with Harvard University on its property on that side of the Charles River.

In a phone interview, she noted that Brattleboro just isn't Boston. The town's institutions are smaller.

She also said the conversation is difficult because although tax-exempt organizations do use town services at taxpayer expense, they do contribute a great deal of community value measured in other ways.

“It's a balancing act with all those things,” she said.

Sondag added that the large number of nonprofits in town speak to Brattleboro's status as a regional hub.

Brattleboro provides multiple services to the region, but many of the exempt organizations, such as Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, are also large employers. It all fits into a larger discussion, she said.

During the board meeting, Sondag said that the “low-hanging [financial] fruit” would be for the board and Town Meeting Members to not voluntarily exempt organizations from paying their municipal portion of taxes at annual Representative Town Meeting.

Individual appeals, however, are harder to decline, she said.

Sondag also suggested that saying exempt organizations don't add value to the town misses the big picture. The Windham-Windsor Housing Trust, for example, rehabilitates derelict properties into clean, safe, affordable housing.

“If it were easy, everybody would be doing it,” she said. “Data is only as good as it's being interpreted.”

Town property is also exempt.

Rice said that the Grand List would increase by 18 percent without the exempt properties.

He suggested that instead of telling owners of exempt properties to “fork over more money” to help close the town's budget gap, the board could engage owners creatively and build a special fund.

It would be similar to painting a donor's name on a town fire engine, Rice said. The board could ask exempt properties to contribute to a capital fund that would help offset future major expenses.

Gartenstein said that he did not want to appear adversarial, adding that “we're facing an extreme [tax] pressure on property owners.”

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