The Tisbury selectmen lowered the tax rate for businesses, agreed to review a draft warrant article to introduce beer and wine in town and took steps to regulate taxi companies more efficiently in a three-and-a-half hour meeting on Tuesday night.
Selectmen voted to lower the 2007 tax rate for commercial, industrial and personal property to 160 per cent - meaning 60 per cent above what a single tax rate would be - down from 175 per cent in fiscal year 2006. Vineyard Haven is the only town on the Island with a split tax rate. The rates were first split in 1990 by a nominal amount, and more significantly in recent years. The split is aimed at giving relief to residential taxpayers, but business owners argue it is driving consumer costs up and pushing businesses out of town.
The board also voted to keep in place a special tax break for year-round residents; this marks the 20th year the residential tax exemption has been in effect. This year, it will amount to a savings of about $920 on a home valued at $817,000 - roughly the average property value in fiscal year 2007. The exemption allows year-round home owners to subtract 20 per cent of the average home cost - about $163,000 - from their property valuation before paying taxes.
With the lowered tax rate for businesses, commercial property valued at $817,000 would owe $7,400 per year in taxes - $700 less than what that bill would come to in 2006.
A small crowd of business owners who attended the tax rate hearing Tuesday night urged the selectmen to eliminate the split tax rate altogether, but board chairman Tristan Israel insisted that the rate should decrease incrementally and be revisited again next year. Selectman Denys Wortman supported a decrease to 150 per cent, but the board decided on 160.
"I would support next year 150 [per cent] if this year this works well," said Mr. Israel.
A cast of well-known Vineyard Haven entrepreneurs spoke out against the split tax rate, including Ralph Packer of R.M. Packer Co,, Ann Nelson of the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Steve Bernier of Cronig's Market, Sherman and Susan Goldstein of the Mansion House, Phil Hale of the Martha's Vineyard Shipyard, Benjamin Hall Jr., owner of the Capawock Theatre and other Main street real estate, Pat Gregory of Educomp, Trip Barnes of Barnes Moving and Storage and optometrist Dr. David Finkelstein. Several of the business owners live in neighboring towns and cannot vote in Vineyard Haven.
"In the last five or 10 years, the taxes have become a little bit ridiculous - I think we've gone up fivefold," said Peter Cronig, whose family has had a longtime business presence in Vineyard Haven. "It's tough to keep things going. I hope you will bring that rate down."
Some business owners asserted that Vineyard Haven has lost its status as the main year-round town, since Edgartown surpassed it in number of jobs in 2003, and Oak Bluffs in 2004, according to the Martha's Vineyard Commission. The commission Web site shows that the number of jobs in Vineyard Haven dropped by 191 between 1999 and 2004, while jobs in towns like Edgartown and West Tisbury have gone up by 448 and 231, respectively, Mr. Goldstein said.
Census data also shows that while the number of new businesses went up by between 30 and 60 in the other two down-Island towns and West Tisbury during that time period, Vineyard Haven gained just three new businesses.
Whether the statistics for Vineyard Haven have anything to do with the split tax rate or not, business owners said town businesses are hurting financially and need a break.
Later in the meeting, Mr. Cronig presented a draft town meeting warrant article to legalize the sale of beer and wine in Vineyard Haven restaurants. After a town committee studied the issue of changing the town from dry to wet and found no clear consensus, selectmen said they would not push the issue but would entertain a citizen home rule petition. The petition must be approved by the state legislature and allows a town to fashion its own laws for the sale of beer and wine.
While the selectmen review the warrant article, town administrator John Bugbee will consult with town counsel to determine the proper way to proceed. The selectmen will revisit the issue at their next meeting, scheduled for Nov. 28.
At the next meeting, the selectmen will also hold a public hearing on taxicab rates and regulations, before deciding on a final set of rules. One proposed change in the regulations will shift the issuance of taxicab operator permits from town hall to the police department, to allow for more efficient background checks.
The selectmen called the cab company owners to their meeting this week after they became concerned that the companies had not approached them about rate changes. The companies do submit rate sheets to the town hall every year. "I'm not editorializing on what the rates are, I'm just looking at the process," Mr. Israel told the three cab company owners that attended. Mr. Israel said he supports uniform pricing to make things less confusing for customers.
Selectman Thomas Pachico strongly disagreed, saying that the market and competition should continue to set the rates. Cab company owners said the prices are already similar.
"Usually the rates are pretty competitive," Stagecoach Taxi owner Wayne West said. "The fact that we have six companies keeps the rates down."