It’s an annual tradition: with the end of the calendar year approaching, city councilors in Springfield find themselves scrambling to approve the city’s new tax rate for the coming year, before a Dec. 31 deadline.
Turns out, though, that deadline isn’t so hard and fast after all. On Dec. 15, state lawmakers approved an “emergency law” that allows municipalities to extend the deadline by which they have to mail their quarterly tax bills, without penalty. The length of that extension varies depending on what tax-billing system each community uses. In Springfield, it would amount to a 30-day extension—30 days that the city could use to allow more discussion and public input about the new tax rate, says City Councilor Tim Rooke, who’s pushing for the added time.
“This will allow each citizen and business an opportunity to express themselves on this important issue,” Rooke said in an email sent to local reporters. “Each year we try to rush this issue through during the week before Christmas. This year it was the week of Christmas. How can we truly expect input from the electorate and tax payers on the week of Christmas?”
The extension would also allow the new city councilors, who will be sworn in after the New Year, to weigh in on the tax rate, Rooke noted. Only four of the nine sitting councilors will return for new terms; they will be joined by nine new councilors, under the recently adopted ward system that will expand the number of councilors to 13.
The extension must be approved by the City Council. Earlier today, Rooke said he has the support of four of his colleagues—Rosemarie Mazza Moriarty, Jimmy Ferrera, Bud Williams and Pat Markey—and was waiting to hear a response from Bruce Stebbins, who was out of town.
Right now, the City Council is due to vote on the new tax rate today, Dec. 29. The meeting, which will include a public comment period, is set for 5:15 p.m. in the Council chambers. If the vote doesn’t happen then, the Council office has set a back-up date of Dec. 31.
On the table is a proposal, from Mayor Domenic Sarno and the Board of Assessors, that would raise the residential tax rate from its current $17.89 for every $1,000 of property value, to $19.42 in the next fiscal year. The business tax rate would also increase, from $36.98 per $1,000 to $39.49. The increases would raise the city’s tax revenue by $7.7 million over the current fiscal year, to $170.8 million, according to an article by Jack Flynn in the Springfield Republican. The Chamber of Commerce has spoke in opposition to the tax hike.
A “white paper” issued by the Sarno administration on Dec. 24 made the case for the new tax rate, noting that city residents still pay, on average, lower tax bills than residents of neighboring communities. In fiscal 2009, according to the report, the average single-family tax bill in the city was $2,492—“the lowest among neighboring communities, and 303rd in the Commonwealth. …
“The City’s average commercial/industrial tax bill ($17,832) is ranked fifth among neighboring communities, behind Longmeadow ($34,718), Agawam ($25,587), West Springfield ($25,398) and Holyoke ($21,989),” the report continued. “The City’s average business property tax bill is ranked 80th in the Commonwealth and is lower than the average bill in Worcester and many major cities in the Commonwealth.”
As if the tax fight wasn’t enough, the City Council has another hot issue on its hands tonight, when it will vote on a proposal to establish a historic district at Our Lady of Hope parish, which is has been scheduled for closure by the Springfield Catholic Diocese. A similar effort is underway for Indian Orchard's Immaculate Conception parish. The diocese has indicated it would fight the creation of the districts.