EASTHAM — The select board began its annual deliberations on whether to adopt a residential tax exemption for the next fiscal year at its Monday, Dec. 7 meeting, and division on the board was quickly apparent.
Board member Arthur Autorino, tasked with reviewing prior board discussions of the tax exemption option, noted that “the word fairness never came up.”
The residential tax exemption is considered revenue neutral: the valuations of properties owned by “domiciled” residents are reduced by a fixed amount, which results in a higher tax rate for all properties.
“I don’t know if any one of you has ever paid taxes as a nonresident,” Autorino said.
“No, because I don’t own a second home,” replied chair Jamie Demetri.
“I couldn’t vote,” Autorino continued. “I couldn’t be on any town committee. If I wanted to go to a town meeting, I had to sit in a separate room or sit in the bleachers.”
“It really is a choice, Art, whether you live in town or not — to be a resident and participate,” said vice chair Aimee Eckman. “So, the taxation without representation idea doesn’t really fly with me.”
Nonresidents can and do serve on committees, noted Eckman. They just can’t serve on regulatory boards. Eckman said her nonresident friends are happy the town has good infrastructure and schools, so their homes are safe when they’re not here.
Demetri shared a recollection of a trip she made to Nantucket, where she watched who was arriving on the first ferry on Monday morning. “It was construction workers,” she said. “It was painters, and it was plumbers. People with lunch boxes. They’re the people who keep a community going, and they had to be boated in on Monday morning because they can’t afford to live there. And I remember thinking to myself, as long as I’m on this board that won’t be Eastham.”
“I agree,” said Autorino.
The select board had previously set a policy of triggering a residential tax exemption when the ratio of resident home owners to nonresident home owners reached 40 to 60 percent. Finance Director Rich Bienvenue said that the ratio was 52 to 48 percent when the board set that policy, and it’s probably about 55 to 45 now. “It’s not really moving in the direction you think it would go,” said Bienvenue.
The residential tax exemption would not generate additional revenue for the town. But Bienvenue brought up the community impact fee, which is allowed under short-term rental legislation. The fee could amount to “three percent of the total amount of rent upon each transfer of occupancy of a professionally managed unit that is located within that city or town.”
“We have a situation,” said Bienvenue, “where we have 1,100 or so properties contributing to short-term rental taxes, and a good portion of those are owned by corporate interests.” The impact fee could be charged in addition to the four percent in local taxes the town currently receives on short-term rentals.
Town Administrator Jacqui Beebe said on Tuesday that, during Monday’s discussion, they were considering applying the community impact fee to owners of three or more units in town. She noted that the law actually allows towns to levy the fee on owners of more than one property, but she wasn’t sure citizens would want to institute the policy on those owners.
She stressed that Monday’s discussion was preliminary, and that the select board would place the residential tax exemption on the agenda for its first or second meeting in January.