Select Board Sets Tax Classification Rate

Reading, MA — By a vote of 3-2, the Select Board set the minimum residential factor for Fiscal Year 2023 at .9965. This translates to a commercial factor of 1.05. This new rate represents an increase from the previous commercial factor of 1.02. This shift will slightly increase the portion of the tax levy born by commercial properties in town. Town Assessor Victor Santaniello reported that the shift would create a residential tax rate of $12.59 and a commercial tax rate of $13.21.

Santaniello continued, explaining that retaining the factor at 1.02 would have actually decreased the tax bill for the median commercial property in town by 3.15% or $248. The change will now lead to a tax increase for the median commercial property of $355. The average residential property will now have a tax increase of $335. Retaining the shift at 1.02 would have created an increase to the average residential taxpayer of $350.

Select Board member Carlo Bacci argued that any tax increase to commercial properties would be passed along to tenants and that retaining the shift rate at 1.02 would be a “reprieve” for struggling small businesses. He also pointed out that the savings for the average residential taxpayer would only be $15. Small business owner John Means spoke to the board regarding the challenges for small businesses due to hiring and increased costs. “If there is too much of a jump . . . it’s a big hit for businesses,” Means added.

Select Board member Jackie McCarthy recognized the concerns expressed by Means but noted that costs are increasing for all residents, not just businesses. Member Karen Herrick indicated a need to support broad tax decisions that support a large majority of residents while still supporting businesses. She also indicated that she would support a slow and gradual move toward a 1.25 shift in tax rate. Chair Mark Dockser also indicated a discomfort with retaining a 1.02 shift, which would increase residential taxes, but decrease commercial taxes. Bacci and member Christopher Haley were the two dissenting votes.

The board also voted 5-0 in three separate votes to not offer an open space tax discount, to not offer a residential tax exemption, and a small commercial tax exemption.

The Reading Center for Active Living Committee (ReCALC) presented some of its activities. This committee was formed to determine the community’s needs regarding a new senior or community center in Reading. ReCALC’s activities have included site visits to fifteen local senior centers in recognized peer communities as well as a town-wide needs survey administered by the UMass Boston Gerontology Institute. Caitlyn Coyle, from UMass Boston, shared preliminary results of the 1,470 returned surveys.

Coyle reported that 48% of respondents prefer an all-age community center, while 33% prefer a senior-only center. Thirty-two percent prefer a downtown location, while 43% have no preference. Ten percent prefer a location outside of downtown. Twelve percent would support a $200-300 increase in taxes to build a new center, 24% would support a $100-200 increase, while 17% would support an increase of over $100 in taxes to build a new center. Thirty-one percent would not support any increase in taxes to build a new center.

Space priorities for a new center include multipurpose small group spaces, exercise rooms, a cafe or drop-in area, a large multipurpose space, and a kitchen and dining area. Coyle described this as “flexible and adaptable space for things to happen simultaneously.” Outdoor features such as benches, eating areas, and lawn games were also listed. Accessibility concerns include little or no cost for programs, ample parking, transportation, and availability on evenings and weekends.

Coyle will present the full report to ReCALC in early December. The Select Board voted 4-1 to extend the sunset date of ReCALC to June 30, 2023. Bacci was the dissenting vote, preferring the sunset date be in April as opposed to June.

Joellen Cadermatori of GovHR presented results from the pay class study for non-union employees. The town has 79 such employees. The purpose of the study is to ensure that the town has internal equity regarding pay and to present a plan to keep the town competitive in the job market. Cadermatori recommends that the town seek to pay employees in the seventy-fifth percentile to remain competitive. This percentile would be consistent with other communities in the north-of-Boston region. 

In response to the report, Town Manager Fidel Maltez indicated that bringing employee pay in the ten lowest grades up to the seventy-fifth percentile will require an additional $67,000, which will be asked for at November Town Meeting. Eighty-five thousand dollars had been included in the current budget in anticipation of the report’s findings. He also indicated that pay adjustments for the top four grades will be included in the FY 2024 budget.

Maltez also shared his plan to promote current Director of Administrative Services Matt Kraunelis to Assistant Town Manager upon the retirement of current Assistant Town Manager Jean Delios on February 1. He also shared a plan by which the Administrative Services department and the Public Services department will be merged under Kraunelis’s supervision. The Technology Division will be separated from Administrative Services and become its own department. Dockser asked that the new job description be clear in regard to responsibilities for community development.

After discussion, the board will seek to postpone Article 19 at Town Meeting indefinitely. The article authorizes the Select Board to purchase property at 17 Harnden Street, the former Walgreens building, for use as a senior center. Dockser shared his belief that there needs to be more information ready to move the proposal forward to town meeting. He suggested that a special Town Meeting could be called for this purpose in February, allowing the proposal, if approved by Town Meeting, to be placed on the ballot for the April election. Haley agreed, “Anything that is not ready should not be on the warrant.” Maltez shared that negotiations are underway with the property owner and that a few entities, including RCTV, had expressed interest in using the current Pleasant Street Center.

The Select Board voted 3-2 to approve $900,000 of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for emergency pay for essential town employees. Dockser and Herrick were the dissenting votes. “The model [for compensation] makes sense,” Herrick shared. “But the number, in my opinion, is too high.” She shared a desire for funding instead to be allocated to affordable housing. Reading ARPA Advisory Committee (RAAC) chair, Marianne Downing reported that no concrete proposals regarding affordable housing had been presented to the RAAC. She also reminded the board that ARPA funds could not be placed in a trust fund. Dockser also expressed discomfort for the amount, preferring an amount of closer to $750,000. 

Herrick did praise the priorities of the model, which gives greater weight to those with lower starting pay and higher contact with the public during the pandemic. Haley praised the plan stating that the amount of premium pay delivers a message. “If you want to come to work and be appreciated, come to Reading,” Haley stated.

In a series of 5-0 votes, the Select Board allocated $4,000 in ARPA funds to the Reading Garden club, $25,000 to the Reading Rotary, $29,000 to the Chamber of Commerce, $4,000 to the First Congregational Church, and $25,000 for due diligence regarding the possible purchase of the property at 17 Harnden Street.

The Select Board will next meet on November 15 and adjourned at 11:35 pm.

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