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Meals tax OK’d, senior tax freeze nixed

Date: 5/21/2015

EAST?LONGMEADOW – Voters at the May 18 Annual Town Meeting approved to adopt a local option meals excise tax, which will add a 0.75 percent tax on restaurant bills. This tax would give the town approximately $200,000 in additional annual revenue.

“Anything additional would have to come to Town Meeting, but I don’t see us using this as a giant revenue stream,” Board of Selectmen Chair Paul Federici said. “From what I gather, there’s 200 communities in Massachusetts who’ve adopted this 0.75 in addition to this 6.25 [percent state sales tax on meals].”

The only article that was defeated on the Town Meeting was a nonbinding citizen petition by William Gorman and others that called for the town to establish a freeze on residential real estate taxes for residents 70 years or older on or before the Dec. 31 of any calendar year and who have owned and occupied the land and building that they requested for 10 years as principal residents.

Other aspects of the article stipulated that applications would have been required to be filed annually on or before Sept. 11 of each year, the Board of Assessors would have been designated as the municipal body responsible for receiving and acting on applications, and the board would have had the authority to request further information and documentation from applicants.

Town Moderator James Sheils said the article was nonbinding because it would need to be approved at the state level by the Attorney General’s Office.

Several residents argued the article was flawed because it did not include a “means test” for the tax freeze based on the financial situation of the applicant.

One resident asked Gorman if there were any projections of lost revenue if the article was acted upon and if there was a plan to replace that lost revenue.

“You know what we’re going to do to compensate it? Every time we have a Town Meeting, people only know how to shake their head, ‘Yes,’” Gorman responded. “They don’t know how to shake their head, ‘No,’ and then I get calls at my house, ‘Well I hope our taxes don’t go up.’ Well, we have to stop spending.”

The article failed by a vote of 72 to 59.

Article 3 called for the town to appropriate approximately $1.2 million for capital projects, which included two projects located at Town Hall – a $30,000 project to replace old switch gear and a $124,000 Phase 1 renovation – both of which sparked controversy on the Town Meeting floor.

Ralph Page, a member of the Planning Board, made a motion for no money to be appropriated to either project.

He added that the proposed projects would need a special permit with ultimate approval by the Planning Board and that a public hearing would also need to be scheduled.

Page argued that “once 20 percent of the value of the town hall is reached” through renovations, any additional renovations would “kick in” Americans with Disabilities Act compliances.

“The total renovation cost for this building is going to be roughly $770,000,” he added. “Once you get started with it, it has to continue until completion.”

Appropriations Committee Chair Eric Madison said he was initially skeptical about this project when it was discussed during one of the committee’s meetings. However, he decided to vote in favor of the project when one member of the Department of Public Works (DPW) Board stated that it would continue functioning for town use even if the municipal offices are moved to another location.

“This is our Town Hall, it will always be our Town Hall,” Madison said, paraphrasing the DPW?board member. “Whether the town offices are there or not, it’s a functioning [and] it will continue to function for our town for a very long time if we invest in its maintenance, care, and upgrades.”

The project could be funded and no money would be spent until the proper permits are approved, he added. However, if the project weren’t funded, it would have to wait another year to come before voters at the 2016 Annual Town Meeting.

“The only other point that I want to make is that I find offensive, frankly, that here, in the 11th hour, we’re hearing from the Planning Board about a project that’s been being discussed for six months, that, ‘Gee, now you need a special permit,’” Madison said. “I think it speaks volumes to the communication between some departments.”

Page responded to Madison by stating that he’s attended many Appropriations Committee meetings and spoken against the projects.

“For you to say, ‘The Planning Board stepped in at the 11th hour,’ is just inaccurate,” Page added.

The building’s space issues and its inability to expand are other factors that don’t justify the expense for the projects, he noted.

“Just when you resize the offices, it doesn’t give you more space,” Page added. “The building’s not growing. The building can’t grow. There’s not enough parking for it. It doesn’t allow it through our zoning bylaw.”

Board of Public Works member Daniel Burack said the project would be completed in-house by the DPW and the special permit would not affect that Phases 1 and 2 of the project.

Page’s motion was struck down by residents and all the projects in the article were approved by residents.

Residents also approved a $54.25 million budget for fiscal year 2016 (FY16).

Madison said the FY16 budget is a 2.28 percent increase from the current fiscal year, no free cash was utilized to balance annual costs, and it maintains $400,000 in unused levy capacity.

A list of some of the departmental budgets includes approximately $3.8 million for public works, $8.4 million for employee benefits, $3.05 for the town’s debt services, $28 million for education, and $3.52 million for public safety.

The budget includes the expansion of firefighter services, the addition of a full-time health agent, and additional staff in the school district, Madison said.