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An updated proposal for fair Berkshire Hills tax allocations

Chip Elitzer updates his analysis of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District assessments to its three member towns, and proposes what he insists is a more equitable formula.

To the Editor:

I have been thinking about the oft-cited contention that Great Barrington taxpayers shoulder an unfairly high percentage of the District’s budget, so I decided to do my own analysis (click here to download BHRSD Tax Burden Analysis v2). I found that GB has only 53 percent of the combined $2.5 billion assessed property values (residential, commercial, industrial, and personal property) of the three towns, but because it provides almost 70 percent of the resident student population, it gets hit with almost 70 percent of the BHRSD assessment. (Including choice and tuition-in students, GB provides only 50 percent of the total students in the District.)

My conclusion is that we don’t have to read any political tea leaves to understand why the three towns voted the way they did on the MMRHS renovation proposal. The economic fairness issue was a real one, and the voters got it. Stockbridge, which would have had to pay less than 15 percent of the cost and has 32 percent of the assessed value of the three towns, voted 66 percent in favor of the renovation. West Stockbridge, which would have had to pay 15 percent of the cost and has 15 percent of the assessed property value, voted 60 percent in favor. GB, with 70 percent of the cost and 53 percent of the assessed value, voted 60 percent against.

What would fairness look like? It would include allocation based on each town’s share of total assessed property value rather than on its student enrollment, and reimbursement for the true average (not marginal) cost of choice and tuition-in students, which is approximately three times greater than the current rate. If these changes were made, it would also help reduce the gap between GB’s $13.56 tax rate (FY 2014) and Stockbridge’s $8.76, since the school budget accounts for approximately half of the GB town budget.

Consider this: the boundaries of our school district are defined by the geography of our three participating towns, but unlike other services that are town-specific and therefore appropriately paid by each town’s own taxpayers, public education is district-wide. The allocation of the BHRSD budget to the towns based on their student headcount is no more consistent with public education than taxing only families who have children in school would be. In fact, many public school districts in other states (including the East Greenbush, N.Y., central school district where I received my K-12 education, and which includes several neighboring towns) send out their own tax bills to property owners, separate from the town tax bills. We may be precluded from doing that in Massachusetts, but changing the District allocation formula to the towns as I have proposed would accomplish the same result.

I’m hoping (perhaps naively) that this explanation will enable people in all three towns – neighbors, after all – to agree on a new, fairer philosophical framework, instead of the self-interested framework of bid-ask negotiation, so that we can make progress quickly.

Respectfully submitted,

Chip Elitzer

Alford Road

Great Barrington

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