Rural communities say state PILOT is leading them in the wrong direction Central Western Mass.
WARWICK – As you drive through this small town in western Massachusetts, it’s not the picturesque architecture that catches the eye – it’s the vast sea of ââtrees. They rise from the side of the road, pushing behind stone walls and encircling everything, visible even among the cluster of downtown buildings.
Home to both Warwick State Forest and Mount Grace State Forest, the community of Franklin County has over 10,000 acres of unspoiled state-owned land and less than 1,000 residents.
But while the abundance of nature can be a huge draw to those looking for more space and a quiet lifestyle, it is not always an advantage for the taxing roles of the city. city.
âI have long been a proponent of limited development and conservation in general, so I don’t see preserving open spaces as a bad thing,â city coordinator David Young said. “But when 50% or more of the city is state owned, it poses challenges.”
When the state has acquired tax-exempt properties, such as forests, beaches, and public institutions, municipalities are reimbursed for lost income through the PILOT program (Payment for State-Owned Land in Replacement of ‘taxes).
The amount of money each community receives depends on the value of the land as determined by the State Revenue Department, as well as changes in the value of local properties, the value of the land as a share of the value total of all Crown-owned land, and how much funding the legislature allocates to the program.
But after a change in the state’s assessment process about three years ago, small rural communities, particularly in western and central Mass., Have seen their PILOT reimbursements stagnate or even decline, while that some larger and wealthier municipalities in the eastern part of the state have seen their funding increase.
For example, Warwick’s PILOT allocation fell 11.5% between fiscal 2019 and 2020, even as land value increased.
But in Duxbury, which has state-owned land of similar value, PILOT funding has increased by more than 13%, according to a report by state auditor Suzanne Bump.
And now local and state officials are increasingly calling for changes to a program they say has been long flawed.
âWe have learned that there are other nuances to the program that also seem, frankly, rather arbitrary,â Bump told a crowd of local officials gathered at the Sugarloaf Mountain State Reserve in Deerfield ago. a few weeks to discuss the PILOT program.
His office’s 70-page report, released late last year, found that the PILOT program was chronically underfunded and its allocation formula disadvantaged communities whose property values ââwere slowly rising or falling.
The analysis recommends increasing funding for the program, updating the formula to use an overall tax rate method, and creating a “no-liability” provision to protect repayments for communities with real estate values. is reduced.
âThese public lands, these scenic views, to stand on that hill over there and have hawks fly at eye level, to have these recreational opportunities – that’s clearly a boon to the Commonwealth,â Bump said. weeks ago, denoting the panoramic view from the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain. “But there is a public cost to this public good, and the state has an obligation, as I see it as an agent of accountability within state government, to make communities whole when we protect development. “
The Legislature has embarked on this path by allocating an additional $ 4 million to the program in fiscal year 2022, increasing it from $ 31 million to $ 35 million. And Bump partnered with West Massachusetts lawmakers, Senator Adam Hinds of Pittsfield and Representative Natalie Blais of Sunderland to introduce a bill (S 1875 / H 2381) that would implement the recommendations of his report. .
Independent Athol Representative Susannah Whipps also tabled a bill that would create a special commission to study PILOT refunds for cities with a high percentage of state-owned land.
Both pieces of legislation were referred to the Joint Committee on Revenue.
âWe believe that what we donate is not recognized by the people of Boston,â Whipps said at the event at Sugarloaf Mountain. She added, “We are providing a lot more than I think Boston is giving us credit for, and I think it’s time to start reminding people that their water comes from us, your farmers and my farmers provide their food.”
The Deerfield event was Bump’s first visit in a two-stop tour of state-owned properties in Franklin County, which also included the Dubuque State Forest in Hawley.
Cities dependent on funds
For some communities in this part of the state, PILOT’s income is almost as much of the local budget as unrestricted state aid, Bump said, making cities very dependent on these funds.
And allocating money based on the overall property growth of a community can mean that two municipalities with similar plots of land can receive very different amounts for it, exacerbating existing disparities.
Take Plymouth and Warwick: Both communities own over 10,000 acres of state-owned land, most of which is in state forests. But in fiscal 2020, Plymouth’s PILOT payout was nearly $ 700,000, while Warwick’s was nearly $ 100,000, according to Bump’s report.
The program has its detractors in other parts of the state as well. In Douglas, a town of about 8,500 people in southeast Worcester County, concerns about PILOT are not necessarily related to the impact of the cap on local land values, as population and development there are under pressure. growth.
“This is a very bad problem for [other communities] this needs to be corrected. On our side, the scenario is different â, declared the administrator of the city, Matthew Wojcik. âWe’re stuck – we’re not increasing the amount of PILOT we get every year, even as the community grows.
The Douglas State Forest and Lake Wallum are widely used for recreation, Wojcik said, and the city ends up bearing the costs of providing services to the area, including deploying firefighters and police when hikers get lost. But even though the state acquired more forest land, PILOT ownership of the city remained stable or declined.
As a result, the Select Board decided not to approve further additions to the state forest, according to Wojcik.
Bump’s report identified resistance to further preservation of land as a negative side effect of the inequitable formula.
âUntil probably three or four years ago we were paid a very little better on PILOT than on private Chapter 61 land. And I can’t make that argument any longer,â said Young, of Warwick. “And that’s unfortunate. It was really a pivot in my case for land conservation.”
Moreover, from the point of view of local leaders, the state does not seem to be slowing down the pace of acquisitions.
âThe Commonwealth has actually been very aggressive in purchasing additional land in Montague – over 300 acres in the last few years. And they haven’t looked at our open space plan,â the administrator said. town, Steve Ellis, to Mount Sugarloaf. “And so, some of that land that was acquired is land that the city actually considered suitable areas for residential and commercial development.”
Lawmakers hope to continue increasing the state’s PILOT credit by $ 5 million each year until it reaches the level Bump’s report deems sufficient, Hinds told Deerfield, which is believed to be around 45. millions of dollars.
And Hinds and Blais, along with the rest of the Western Mass delegation, are hopeful that structural changes will follow through the legislation they have tabled.
âWe were able to get this additional funding in the FY22 budget, but we also need to make sure that we change that formula,â Blais said. “I really see this as a punch that is absolutely necessary.”