The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to call a Special Town Meeting and a Special Election at their meeting on Tuesday, August 9th. The Special Town Meeting will be held on September 12th and will deal with several issues, most importantly, a warrant article recommendation asking the town to seek a Home Rule Petition enabling property tax relief for senior citizens. This relief would be offered to residents over the age of sixty-five who have owned a home in Reading for at least ten years, whose property tax bill accounts are at least ten percent of their total income, and who have qualified for the Senior Citizen Tax Credit offered on their state income taxes. Six hundred and forty-three Reading seniors qualified for the state tax credit in 2014, though it is unclear how many were homeowners. Town Assessor, Victor Santaniello estimates that four hundred residents in Reading may qualify for the proposed tax relief.
To pay for this relief, the extra burden would be placed on residential taxpayers, adding a potential $.25 per thousand to the tax rate. The Board of Selectmen would determine the factor of tax abatement, from fifty percent of the state tax credit, to as much as double the state credit. The maximum state tax credit in 2015 was $1,070. The goal of this program is to help seniors continue to live in their homes in a climate where housing values and the resulting property taxes have greatly outpaced the fixed incomes of many senior citizens. Board of Selectmen Chair John Halsey commented, “We need to create this opportunity for seniors.” If Town Meeting votes to approve the warrant article, it must then be approved by the legislature and signed by the governor. It is hoped that the plan can go into effect for Fiscal Year 2018.
The Selectmen also considered changing the commercial tax rate to help reduce the burden on residential taxpayers, shifting some the cost of the tax relief onto commercial property owners by creating a split tax rate. By increasing the commercial tax rate by two percent over the residential rate, parity between the two groups of taxpayers could be maintained. This increase represents the 92% to 8% split between the two types of property in Reading. Some heated discussion ensued when Selectmen Barry Berman suggested shifting an even greater percentage to the commercial tax payers. “While it has been the practice in Reading to maintain tax rate parity, we have opened up the discussion on tax policy, so we should really take a hard look at it”, Berman argued, “A 75%-25% split does not seem unreasonable.” Chair John Halsey can foresee a day where a greater split may occur. “The time to consider a split rate is when we have a larger share of commercial property in town.” Halsey followed up by suggesting that, when the town has 12%-14% commercial property, such a plan should be considered. The Board could not take official action on the measure, but voted 4-1 to recommend the split rate to themselves if the Home Rule Petition becomes a reality. Only Berman dissented, feeling that a greater split should be discussed.
In addition to the Special Town Meeting, the call for a Special Election will be held on October 18th for the voters to consider a Proposition 2 1/2 override, the details of which will be forthcoming. The amount of public comment and questions on these issues caused the meeting to run long. The planned override discussion was set aside due to the late hour and the Board adjourned at 10:55PM.