Sticker shock: Property tax bills stir controversy in Easthampton

  • Easthampton resident William Joss, photographed outside his home on Thursday. Joss, who just saw his tax bill jump by 19 percent, thinks the main driver of the increase, the city’s $109 million school project, is “hugely extravagant.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Easthampton resident Josh Rosenblatt, photographed outside his home on Thursday. Rosenblatt has seen his property taxes increase by 15 percent, but says he would have been willing to pay more for the new school. “It’s our future,” he said. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • JERREY ROBERTSEasthampton Municipal Building, 50 Payson Avenue GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/9/2020 11:00:23 PM
Modified: 1/9/2020 10:59:45 PM

EASTHAMPTON — For close to two decades, John and Melissa Knybel have lived in Easthampton, where they own six rental properties. But after getting their latest property tax bills, the Knybels made two decisions: They won’t buy more property in the city, and they will move out of Easthampton.

“We will stop investing in Easthampton,” Melissa Knybel said. “We will sell our personal home.”

The Knybels are among many city residents experiencing sticker shock and expressing outrage after a simultaneous increases in property values and taxes related to an approximately $60 million debt-exclusion override approved by voters in 2018 to build a new K-8 school.

Other taxpayers have said they understand the necessity of the tax increases, and they are willing to pay more money for a much-needed new school. 

According to the city assessor’s office, owners of an average single-family home valued at $265,184 will see their annual real estate tax bill rise from $3,968 to $4,710 this fiscal year, an increase of $742. That increase is based on a 2020 tax rate of $17.76 per $1,000 of property value, a $2.30 jump from last year’s rate of $15.46 per $1,000, as well as an increase in assessed property values.

Real estate tax bills are determined by a property’s assessed value and a municipality’s tax rate.

“It’s definitely a big increase,” Mayor Nicole LaChapelle acknowledged. But she noted that it’s less of an increase than what was earlier predicted and communicated to city residents. 

“We never thought we’d get below $800,” she said.

The mayor said she thought the annual tax increase would be higher because the interest rate on the bond for the school project was expected to be less favorable.

Earlier estimates pegged the tax increase for an average home at $680 to $877, according to a Gazette report in May 2018. 

The school project

Knybel said she and her husband voted against the new school project because they thought it was too expensive. So did William Joss, an Easthampton retiree who saw his real estate tax bill jump by more than 19 percent this fiscal year, a $1,044 increase.

Speaking about the new school project, Joss said, “It just seems like it’s hugely extravagant.”

The school’s cost was estimated at $109 million, but the project’s construction costs are on track to come in around $5 million under budget. The new K-8 school will be built on the grounds of White Brook Middle School off Park Street. The middle school will be demolished, and the new school will consolidate the city’s three elementary schools with a middle school. 

The prospect of the city saving $5 million on the project doesn’t excite Joss, however.

“That’s advertising as far as I’m concerned,” said Joss, who noted the size of the project even after this reduction. “Five million is peanuts.”

LaChapelle said that the cost of the school is where it needs to be.

“It’s not Cadillac,” she said. “It’s a Ford 250.”

Joshua Rosenblatt, another Easthampton homeowner, supports the school project. He saw the total taxes on his property go up 15 percent, a $947 increase, but he said that he would have been willing to pay more in taxes to fund the school.

“It’s our future,” Rosenblatt said.

He said that even though he doesn’t have any children in the school, students there today will be the adults of tomorrow, and if people do not move to Easthampton, property values will go down.

LaChapelle said that she voted for the school and that the community’s vote in favor of it affirmed that it was what the community wanted.

“To do anything else than what I’ve done would be going against the public will,” she said.

The mayor did say, however, that tax exemptions are available for low-income seniors and veterans. And she said that increasing the housing supply could bring assessments down or stabilize them.

Melissa Knybel, vice president of clinical services for Randstad Healthcare, said that she and her husband, a former construction worker, already had been looking to downsize and had been considering moving to Hatfield, although before the latest tax bills arrived they had also considered moving to another house in Easthampton. She also acknowledged that the couple were near their financial limit for acquiring new property in the city.

As a result of the tax increases on their rental properties, which ranged from $672 to $1,831, according to tax documents, Knybel said that she and her husband will be raising the rent for most of their tenants as of Feb. 1. One tenant already informed them that he may have to move out because of the upcoming rent hike. 

Of the Knybels’ six multifamily properties, three of them saw their assessments increase by approximately 20 percent. By contrast, their single-family house saw just a 5 percent increase. 

Lori Stewart, the city’s assessor, said that properties are reassessed yearly and that these assessments are determined by sales in the real estate market. Properties are assessed as part of classes of similar properties. She noted that multifamily home assessments increased significantly this fiscal year, with some assessments rising as much as 30 percent.

Clinton Vadnais, a media specialist in the health care field, co-owns a condo with his fiancee. The total tax bill on their property between fiscal year 2019 and fiscal year 2020 increased by more than 25 percent, although Vadnais said he initially thought the bill was much higher.

“Fortunately, we can afford the increase,” Vadnais said.  

Future discussion

City Council President Peg Conniff requested that Stewart and the city’s auditor appear before the council to answer questions from councilors at the council’s Wednesday meeting, but LaChapelle said that this was too short notice for them to appear.

Conniff said she wanted to provide city councilors an opportunity to ask questions about the topic. However, she said this didn’t necessarily need to happen at City Council and said questions could be asked at next week’s meeting of the council’s finance committee.

The council president also said that communication could have been clearer about the most recent bills and that the city could have included a mailer that would have provided more detail about the tax increases. 

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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