IN THIS ISSUE: VOL. III NO. 18 9/15/2022
Love. Photo: Blue Moon Images/Dana Goedewaagen
And Mary Flynn Said...
A long time ago, Mary Flynn stood up at a Stockbridge Town Meeting and said, "I am asking you for $117 [about $850 today]."
Someone asked, "What for?"
"I'm not telling you," Mary said, "People have a right to their privacy, and their dignity, even poor people."
It passed without demur.
Fifty years ago, in the homes of the richest and the backyards of the significantly less affluent, Stockbridge partied together. The attendees wore flannel shirts and bib overalls, dress shirts and silk ties. No one was excluded. Those who had five houses stood with those trying to hold on to one. They stood together, debating without denigrating, disagreeing without rancor. Here's why...they knew stuff.
They knew they needed each other. They knew each contributed in his/her own way. When it broke, some knew how to fix the dang thing; someone else could pay for it. Some who were young and strong, could lift it. Others who were old and wise, could explain it.
They knew they all wanted the same things. Folks came for the very things that locals fought so hard to preserve — open space, low density, lakes, and trails. The townies saved all that; the outlanders more than recognized the effort, they respected it. Outlanders decided it was not just where they wanted to live, it was how they wanted to live.
Finally, they knew: if you bend a little it will help a lot because the trees all know what the men forgot. Well, we forgot, so with what are we left? Help for others only if they prove they need it; the real divisiveness of reducing the value of people to the value of their bank balances; conversation reduced to headlines with far more heat than light. Decisions that ignore a simple truth: if the tax is $1 but someone is allowed to pay 99 cents, someone else pays that penny.
We lost an opportunity to be cohesive. We lost the opportunity to be the Stockbridge that Norman Rockwell captured; that raised three members of the United States Supreme Court; that nurtured artists; that elevated women; that stood together. It did not matter what the decision was in the end — it only mattered how we treated each other during the process. We lost an opportunity to work together in mutual respect.
Moo. Photo: Cathy Chester
1. Charging Stations and Streetlights
Stockbridge Green Communities Committee met on August 20 and discussed two issues that might be of special interest to SU readers. The Committee voted to recommend to the Select Board (SB) that the Town move forward in installing Electrical Vehicle Charging Stations (EV Stations).
It was approved by the SB on September 8, and the Town should have EV Stations by late fall or early winter. Initially four are planned at Town Offices in a space where someday 10 could be.
Second, the Green Communities Committee has worked for some time to purchase the above-ground serviced streetlights from National Grid. When the purchase is completed, new LED streetlights will be installed. The Town will achieve significant savings in energy consumption, electricity costs, and streetlight rental from National Grid. Stockbridge received a grant of $62,569 for purchase and installation of the streetlights
2. Finance Committee Clarification
Clarification: "Carole: In response to your question as to why eight members attended the recent [Finance Committee] meeting but there were only seven votes, we have one alternate, Ed Lane. His vote only counts if one of the seven permanent members are absent. With Neil Holden's retirement from the Committee, Jorja Marsden was appointed by the Moderator to replace him. Trust this answers your question. Best, Jay B[ikofsky]"
3. BRPC Survey Results
Results from Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC) Survey
Median income — second homeowners — $250,000
Median Income — locals — $ 62,000
b. Reasons for moving here — below are the 5 reasons that scored more than 35% in the "very important" category
Environmental quality (e.g., clean air and water) 46.3%
Access to lakes and ponds 39.3%
Access to mountains 42.0%
Outdoor recreational opportunities, such as hiking, boating, skiing, etc. 45.8%
Fewer people/more open space 35.5%
These are two brief excerpts related to the editorial taken from two surveys (43 and 64 pages long) available from BRPC.
4. Cable News
The 5-Town Cable Advisory Board met Tuesday night. Two representatives from each of five towns (Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Sheffield, and Stockbridge) are appointed to the board. Two salient issues are the ten-year contract with Spectrum and — as cable usage decreases — how will CTSB be funded in the long term? Stay tuned — or better yet — attend a meeting. Town Administrator Michael Canales (one of our representatives) knows the dates and times.
Margie's wedding at the DeSisto estate, a few years back. Photo: Margie Bullock
1. Stockbridge Library Exhibit at Procter Gallery
Stockbridge Library — We Are Still Here — Procter Gallery exhibit featuring books and artwork by Cheryl Savageau and Judy Dow Wednesday, September 14, 2022 - November 5, 2022
LEGOs in the Library Tuesday, September 20 from 3:30pm - 4:30pm
Erased Histories: conversation series in collaboration with WAM Theatre: Amber Chand, storyteller, and Sunder Ashni, community activist, Saturday, September 24, 3-4:00pm
2. Norman Rockwell Museum — Drawings 1914 - 1976
Norman Rockwell Museum —Norman Rockwell's Drawings 1914 – 1976 -
September 10 - January 7
On September 17, 4:30pm — Conversation and book signing with Stephanie Plunkett, NRM Deputy Director/Chief Curator.
3. Berkshire Botanical Garden Yoga Thursdays
Berkshire Botanical Garden — Thursday Afternoon Yoga in the Garden Sept. 15 - 29, 5:15pm - 6:15pm
Programs and workshops for adults. Go to berkshirebotanical.org for complete listing.
Photo: Blue Moon Images/Dana Goedewaagen
Notes from the Board of Assessors, September 7, Hybrid meeting
- Gary Pitney, Chair
- Doug Goudey
- Michael Blay, Assessor
- Michael Canales, Town Administrator
- Tammy Toupence, Secretary
- Valuation Recertification — required every five years
- Residential competed
- Commercial done soon — all evaluations must be within 99% of market value. One on Main Street was at 105% — not sure if Commonwealth will approve
- Commonwealth also asked for 5 top taxpayers in last 2 years
- At Selectman White's request, worked with Canales, and created chart of all available tax relief options.
- Some only give a maximum relief of $500/annually
- Some require the "impossible" — less than $20,000/annual income
- Some have age restriction
- The restrictions make them unusable and very few have ever applied — the tax reduction ($500) make them unappealing and just 7 — 10 people or less have applied while the Census data says Stockbridge is 13.4% under poverty level
- All of these are on the books and available right now (and have been for years). To make more useable, at Town Meeting, some requirements and benefits can be modified. Other tax laws can only be adopted, shifted, or modified by the Board of Assessors or Select Board
- Goudey wanted it clarified that none of the tax relief options effect the tax rate (everyone pays same rate) and that "the money has to come from somewhere" so all tax relief options affect other taxpayers. That is, "if the tax is $1 and someone pays 99cents, someone else pays the penny." [Just as with RTE]
- Canales wanted to recommend [?] tax deferrals. In that case, the Town is paid back later
- However, Goudey pointed out the bank has to approve the deferral as it handles it.
- While paid back later it may be a decade later, and do other taxpayers pick up shortfall in interim?
- Canales asked how many towns of the 351 in Mass have RTE? Canales did not know exactly but said that 16 adopted RTE as written, 5 adopted a means tested RTE and called it Home Rule, and an unknown number may have adopted a modified RTE. Canales had no way of knowing unless went through minutes of every town meeting.
- Questionnaire to determine if an organization qualifies for tax exempt status (501C3) is complete. Blay will send it to Berkshire Scenic Railway and ask that it be returned in 30 days. Chair wanted it mentioned that it is in their best interest to return it soon.
- Canales wants all boards and commissions in agreement "beforehand", so the people are not confused at Town Meeting.
- Public comment: Peter Ungaro wanted to thank Blay for being so available and informative
Board went into Executive Session—public meeting adjourned
Editor's note: SU invited Michael Canales to write a column on any topic he thinks would interest SU readers. It would be so informative if he could write and explain the advantages and disadvantages of seeking consensus among the boards before bringing a matter to Town Meeting (TM). He mentioned one advantage: "not to confuse" the voters at TM. Are there other advantages? Are there disadvantages? When a new process is introduced that is a departure from tradition, it is good to weigh the pluses and minuses before adopting it.
Work commences on the repair of the Soldier's Monument. Photo: Patrick White
Notes from the Agriculture and Forestry Commission, August 29, Hybrid meeting
- Matt Boudreau, Chair
- Lia Bozzuto
- Shelby Marshall
- Erik Rasmussen and Abbigail Fredsall via Zoom
- Patrick White, Select Board Chair
- Minutes of the previous meeting approved as corrected.
- White was asked about grants received for Ice Glen.
- $70,000 is reimbursement grant so once money is spent for the tree injections, Town is reimbursed.
- Bozzuto asked about the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) grant. Marshall remembered the work was done for the MVP grant and then "handed to Michael". No one knew what happened then? Did Canales submit application?
- Chair said it would be helpful if Canales could attend meetings and answer questions
- Bozzuto reported all work is done for application for Stockbridge to be a USA Tree City except a tree report. The tree report is prepared by the Tree Warden. It has two parts: number of trees cut down and number replanted. Deadline is December 31, 2022.
- Bozzuto wanted help reaching Tree Warden. Chair said he spoke to him, and he was enthusiastic, but this is his busiest season. There is still time.
- Farmer's Market: Chair would like to bring idea to SB. White suggested the September 22 SB meeting. The Commission needs approval of $10,000 for a Farmer's Market manager to get it started. It is hoped it will be self-sustaining after that.
- White was asked about progress treating trees in Ice Glen. He reported treatment of ash trees went well. Treatment of hemlocks was too slow. There are two forms of injection and the low bidder used the slow method. Only 47 trees were treated. Consultant Ken Gooch suggested requiring faster method in any future grant and mixing injection and bark spray now with money left in this grant. Bozzuto was concerned about spraying — are there regulations/abutters concerns?
- Bozzuto said old growth trees "sequester" more carbon that new re-plants. What can we do to manage all old growth woods in Stockbridge? Chair said sometimes the very best is doing nothing. Another suggestion was a forest manager for the old growth forests. Rasmussen said the 367 acres around Lake Averic (the reservoir) is managed by Water and Sewer and should be left to them.
- Chair introduced the American Farmland Trust that produced updated soil maps. In future, to qualify for grants and designations, a farm will be required to have 50% or more of certain soils
Photo: Joan Gallos
Notes from the Select Board, September 8, Hybrid meeting
- Patrick White, Chair
- Chuck Cardillo
- Jamie Minacci
- Michael Canales, Town Administrator
Also present in the room and via Zoom: over 50 people — named if they speak
- Four EV Charging Stations at Town Offices (with signs) $88,916; space to expand to 10; approved unanimously
- Senior Center to reopen (with a luncheon) Wednesday September 21th — 11am – 2pm RSVP by September 12.
- To approve $4million in bonds (loan at 3.64%) long rendition required by Commonwealth
- Nick Nadorff and Marty Sennett presented proposal for a walkway from Pine Woods to Town. Mary Berle and Jim Balfanz also worked on this project.
- There were two suggestions (or possibly execute both). One behind Pine Woods through woods and the other a "sidewalk" parallel to road (Rte. 102) Destination points: the library, the post office, the bus stop.
- Is there a Laurel Hill Preservation grant? Is there American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money? BRPC money?
- Joanna Linsky said she had formed a residents' group which supported the walkway and also had concerns about the condition of driveway and general maintenance.
- Linsky emailed Minacci several times but did not hear back so attended meeting with concerns about driveway and maintenance.
- Nadorff volunteered to repair driveway at his own expense if he was allowed. There was concern as Pine Woods is privately owned not owned by the Town.
- White will get the answer/permission from owners (Construct) and report back — will also check for possible funding
- Alternatives to RTE — After last SB meeting White requested Canales and Blay create a list of alternatives to RTE that are "tax relief"
- Canales presented a list of 10 or more currently available. All except one offered to Stockbridge residents in the past
- Very few take advantage — fewer than 10 in a year
- Some are "unusable" because of unrealistic criteria (e.g., household income of less than $20,000) and very low relief (e.g., maximum relief of $500)
- Some of those requirements can be adjusted at Town Meeting — others cannot — still others can only be adopted or modified by Board of Assessors or SB
- Many like Tax Deferral — where the entire tax can be deferred until death or sale of property — disadvantages are criteria (below $20,000 deferred at 8% per year interest until repaid) Many do not want to shift burden to their children. Suggestion: at TM — increase income to $62,000 (the median) and reduce interest to 1%
- All are currently available. Whichever used and however much awarded in tax relief — just as with RTE — that amount must be "made up" somehow. Someone said perhaps not with Tax Deferral as it is paid back eventually. However, that may be a decade or more and what happens in interim?
- RTE discussion
- Adopted by decision of SB
- Reduces assessment on primary homeowners' property between 10% and 35%
- Assessment of second homeowners not reduced
- Works in Stockbridge because there has been a major leap in assessments due to recent sales and because 60% of homeowners in Stockbridge are second homeowners so tax shift to majority (Show Canales' chart here)
- 16 communities adopted — another 5 adopted "Home Rule" (RTE with means test) and Canales said total could be more because if modify terms of RTE change name
- Public comment on RTE
- Jay Bikofsky, Chair of Finance Committee (FC) but "speaking for myself" wanted to understand and weigh all options
- Steve Shatz, also on FC, wanted it known that although FC created a list of points in opposition to RTE, they took no vote. Shatz spoke about the necessity for a "housing policy". White offered that at last SB meeting they approved funds for a housing study. Shatz asked if it was done yet? White said no, not in two weeks, perhaps by spring. White wondered if we could return to discussion of RTE?
- Ed Lane — also on FC — opposed to second homeowners "funding projects". Asked White how that could be true if RTE is net zero?
- Cardillo thought Town is doing fine and White is just scaring people
- John Hart supported RTE and told the story of an elderly woman — a neighbor — who called him in a panic when she opened her tax bill. It was much larger than expected. She saved all year in anticipation of that one bill and now it was much larger. At 86 years old, on a fixed income, the bill was up $800. A giant sum to her. She sat crying and Hart felt her pain.
- Peter Strauss said that was a moving story but RTE unfair to shift tax burden to second homeowners and unfair if RTE gives wealthy primary homeowners a tax break. "Mechanics are established by Commonwealth," he said, "and automatic [adjustment] is unfair." White said everyone who needs relief gets relief — that's fairness
- Cardillo then said he had to speak. He was opposed "and will never vote for this [RTE]" He thought tax deferral at $62,000 income, and 1% interest was good.
- Minacci said she agreed with Cardillo — would never vote for RTE because she was "grateful for the part-timers but disliked jillion-dollar houses."
- White said he still supported RTE, but "this is a democracy, there are three on the SB if 2 are inalterably opposed, RTE is dead." He called for a motion to adjourn.
- Canales, who could see the Zoom attendees on his screen, said there were 4 with hands up. Three wanted to speak about RTE. White said it was now off-the-table, but if they wished they could. One woman (name?) had a list of objections to RTE. Anita Schwerner was sad RTE was dead. Dick Jaffe thanked White for "his decorum" in running the meeting, was sure part-timers wanted to do their fair share but didn't like divisiveness of RTE. Jane Karlin agreed with Jaffe.
Photo: Jay Rhind
Part Two: RTE — The Data
by Jonathan Gottlieb
The available data from the Census and other sources confirms that there are many Stockbridge households with very limited incomes, and that this is not limited to elderly residents. 44% of resident households have annual incomes below $50,000. 17% have incomes below $25,000. 13.1% of Stockbridge residents live in poverty, approximately equally divided between seniors and younger households. The data does not indicate how many of these low-income households are owners and how many are renters but those that are owners are a primary target of the proposed exemption.
Another potential goal is to attract younger households to Stockbridge. The median home value in Stockbridge is 18% higher than the State average, but the median household income in Stockbridge is 26% below the State average. This mismatch of incomes and home values makes it very difficult for area residents to purchase homes in Stockbridge. The disparity is caused primarily by the strong market for second homes which drives up home prices far beyond what the residential market could otherwise support. The proposed exemption partially offsets the higher purchase cost by reducing the tax burden, allowing the money saved on taxes to fund a larger mortgage. This benefit should not be overly touted but it provides an incentive for younger buyers to consider settling in Stockbridge.
The shift in tax burden resulting from a 10% residential tax exemption is estimated to cause non-resident tax bills to increase by 3%. This comes to $250+- for a property valued at the average level in Stockbridge of $600,000. The exemption program does not have to be perfect to justify this small additional expense. The benefit to low-income Stockbridge residents is sufficient to offset the additional cost until a more targeted program can be approved by the State and implemented locally.
Work has begun on the replacement of the steps to the Congregational Church's Jonathan Edwards room, paid for in part by a CPC grant. Photo: Patrick White
Thoughts on RTE
Some Respectful Responses to Recent Opinion Pieces on the RTE for Stockbridge and Some Questions for All of Us
by Joe Newberg
The sewers at Mahkeenac Heights, a modest, entry level camp-cottage community of about 50 densely-packed homes on a hill above the town beach, were installed by the Town 17 years ago, to address the uniform failure of 50 septic systems that were leaching downhill into the lake. Sewer installation stopped that, increased assessments of the modest camp-cottages (raising their taxes), enabled improvements, and also imposed fixed sewer fees (not based on actual usage, but on bedrooms), payable all year whether used or not. I am reasonably confident the upgrade not only benefited the Town but paid its way over time. Do you have sewers? Do other areas of the Town? Are they free to you? Did the Town install them? That of course is the Town's job—to provide and maintain necessary infrastructure for the entire town. Do you say it is wrong, offensive, and not of advantage to the Town to do so if the community served is mostly owned by part-time residents?
Mass hardship will not follow from the pending 20-30% upward revaluation of the town's total assessable real estate. That is misleading. The tax rate will almost certainly go down as the overall valuation goes up, unless the Town seeks to raise a larger budget than before. What the revaluation may do is change the relative values among existing properties –for example, new construction may go up more than older stock. The likely effect (not known until the assessors complete their tasks), is whether that will help or hurt anyone. The part- time population does its share of building and improvements, and I suspect its burden will thus go up compared to others, but the results will be case by case depending on specific facts. Did you miss all that? Do you care?
Abatement applications would seem merited. If the Town's general tax rate is increased 15- 20 percent because of an RTE (as the rough math might suggest), appraised market values of ALL residential properties will go down, no matter who owns them. That is simply how the market appraises real estate. The likely result is more uncertainty in budgeting, since revenue collections will be uncertain, with lots of paperwork on both sides. Do you want to ding the values of all residential properties in Stockbridge? Perhaps you do, but does everyone understand that?
Finally, there is no difference between the full-time and part- time populations of Stockbridge. We are all people: If you stick us, do we not bleed? If you wrong us, do we not seek redress?
We ALL love Stockbridge and seek its constant betterment. Dividing us instead of uniting us will not lead to common good. It is a bad idea for Stockbridge, it is unnecessary, it is inefficient, and it is wrong.
Let's kill the RTE and move on, united, to consider better options for whatever the wonderful Town of Stockbridge wishes to achieve.
Stockbridge artist Lionel Delevingne at the opening of his gallery show in Hudson, NY. Photo: Pool Photographer.
THE LAST WORD
Reader to Reader
Dear Joseph Newberg,
Thank you for sending your piece to SU. I am so sorry you did understnad my position. I understand and respect that you oppose RTE and want you to understand that I am neither pro- nor anti-RTE. I am pro-decent discussion and debate. I note one thing: I was told RTE is a 3% increase not 15-20%. I am pleased to print your article in SU if you are happy for me to do so. Please confirm. Carole
Many thanks for the reply, Carole! I am happy for you to publish it and appreciate it.
I do realize that you meant "did not understand"; and I, too, very much want to keep the dialogue decent, respectful, and focused on the issues and always the best for Stockbridge.
I am writing this letter partly in response to a letter in the Berkshire Edge by Roxanne McCaffrey, who was recently replaced on the Stockbridge selectboard by Jamie Minacci. It lists existing methods our town and the Commonwealth have already put into place to help needful residents pay their taxes. The letter also refers to the residential tax exemption, legally available in Massachusetts, and equally legitimate. The letter seems to indicate that you can't do both, but you can.
Curiously, the selectboard has already voted on this issue, so why all this after-the-fact fuss?
I have lived in Stockbridge as a full-time resident since 1980. During this time many homes have been built or renovated by quite wealthy people who have built huge, often extravagant houses for their part time visits, sometimes for just a few days a year. They tell me they do not want to commit to full-time residence here (and thereby get the right to vote here about taxes) because they save more taxes keeping their residences elsewhere (usually New York or Florida).
Also, during that time, although Stockbridge tax rates are lower than all the more-developed towns in Berkshire County, home valuations have constantly risen, so all the while Stockbridge residents have been paying more taxes because of these expensive homes.
Ms. McCaffrey obviously wants to continue to encourage building expensive homes by making our town more user-friendly to people who own them, unfortunately, at the expense of some of the full-time residents who may be too proud to speak up.
Many of the people who can afford to move here have an intrinsic vein of altruism. It shows up in their donations to not-for-profits. It shows up in their efforts to help unfortunate people elsewhere in the world. I hope they will not overlook the as-of-yet unmet needs of some of the deserving residents in their own town because of the distracting rhetoric of some of our local politicians.
To the Editor,
The More Things Change....
I love to drive over to West Hawthorne Road just above Gould Meadow and watch the majestic cloud formations over Yokun Ridge, lit up by the rays of the setting sun, the Bowl below, Monument Mountain in the distance. And I sometimes imagine a huge resort/housing development that would be visible from this same spot, lights and buildings rising above the trees below the ridge line, dimming the sunset glow.
I often think about this. Some people just see every piece of land as a building project waiting to happen. This solves the tax problem! It will bring jobs to a dying town! True, residents might make minimum wage at all kinds of new jobs. But slinging a mop at the new Inn at Interlaken is not a great second career choice for living here. I imagine seeing those big waving balloons that car dealers use to attract customers from my spot above Gould Meadow, giant Norman Rockwell heads and arms, paint brush in one hand, pipe in the other, floating in the breeze. Boy, are we gonna make some money now!
'Cause that's what its all about...
We have not found a moderate solution for development in town that preserves our character. The Cluster Housing at Stockbridge is not a project most would sign on to.
The 2020 report from our Finance Committee led us to believe we could be in desperate shape, and the Planning Board pushed their development bylaw. But we were not losing population, kept our low tax rate, survived the pandemic. Was our bond rating really hurt because we were mainly a tourist economy? I don't know. But if Molly and Norman Rockwell came back to visit the Berkshires, I wonder if they would book a room at Miraval or some similar venue.
My experience here goes back only 50 years. But I remember Rockwell's town. If you are someone who came here to retire from the banking world, large scale building, the finance industry, the wide world of attorneys, real estate, industry, etc., this is fine. All are welcome. And we greatly appreciate your expertise. But we may not need to duplicate the settings you came from here in Stockbridge. This place is different for many good reasons. The real threat to Stockbridge is not financial. It's that we get less different than other places every year.
Drums. Photo: Joan Gallos
Stockbridge Updates Statement of Purpose
To inform without opinion or pressure and give the people of Stockbridge the facts they need to make informed decisions.
To provide space for opinion, but since facts and opinions are different, to clearly mark opinion pieces, and clearly identify the opinion holder.
Stockbridge Updates is a periodic newsletter delivered through email.
Carole Owens, Managing Editor
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SU welcomes your letters and other submissions on all Stockbridge subjects, history and current events, news and human interest, whatever is on your mind. As with articles and opinion pieces, letters are 400 words or less, no personal attacks, and always attach your name. SU does not include personal information and will delete telephone numbers, email addresses, post office boxes, and street addresses. Limit one submission per month.
Carole Owens, Managing Editor
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