Chester taxes jump as reassessment cancels CLA cushion

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Last Wednesday night, the Chester Select Board set tax rates and, even though municipal and school budgets have seen only minor increases for this year and the 2021-22 school year, Chester taxpayers are looking at an increases of about 13 cents per hundred of assessed value (or nearly 6 percent) for those who file a homestead declaration and about 9.5 cents (or 3.87 percent) for non-residents and business properties.

Paradoxically, almost all of the increase comes from the recent reassessment that lowered the values of most properties in town but also flattened the Common Level of Assessment or CLA, which is based on a comparison of assessment versus the actual sales prices of property. This is part of the formula on which education taxes are calculated to equalize values across the state explained Town Manager Julie Hance.

With home sales prices lower than the last assessment taken in 2007 (at the height of the real estate bubble) the CLA was high and that favored Chester in years for more than a decade. In effect, the CLA saw Chester as a depressed real estate market and gave taxpayers a break.

With the recent re-valuation, assessments and real estate sales prices are more in line, so the break goes away. And with a hot real estate market with sales exceeding the assessed values, Chester could soon see the CLA pushing tax rates higher still in years to come.

The increase in the homestead rate means that the taxes on a $200,000 home would go up by $257.40.

A NOTE ON TAXES: There are several factors that can influence the the bottom line of a tax bill including the property tax credit, which is based on income, the current-use program and veterans exemptions. Each tax bill reflects that taxpayer’s own situation.

Policing discussion turns personal

Town Manager Julie Hance told the board that when she was appointed to the job she set a goal of doing reviews of all the town’s departments. That began with the Ambulance Service and now she is beginning work on the Police Department. Hance noted that this was a good time because Chief Rick Cloud would be retiring in a year and a half to two years, and she wants to do this before she loses his experience.

Town manager Julie Hance explains her timeline for assessing the police department

Hance presented a timeline for the review, including work on policies and procedures. She also will be looking at internal operations, hiring and retention and hiring a firm to do an outside assessment of the department to look for the department’s strengths and weaknesses and update the department on best practices. The outside assessment would result in an implementation plan that could be done in one to two years.

Hance is also looking at a community policing plan and a regional “citizen’s police academy” that would give residents a better understanding of policing and the many changes that have been made with more on the way.

“A lot of people don’t fully understand what the job entails,” said board member Jeff Holden, who also serves as a part-time Chester Police officer.

Board member and police officer Jeff Holden complaining about public comments about the police department

Select Board chairman Arne Jonynas then read a letter from Leslie Thorsen who could not be present at the meeting. Thorsen has been critical of the department and has appeared at several meetings to urge the board to institute a civilian oversight committee. She had asked Hance to read the numbered items into the record and Jonynas decided it should be read during the police discussion.

Thorsen wrote urging urged the board to start a civilian oversight committee sooner than later so it could participate in the work on policies. She also pointed to several areas where she thought there should be improvements, including more performance evaluation documentation, improved complaint procedures and formats and a policy for the use of the holding cells that will be in the new public safety building.

But when Jonynas reached the part of the letter that addressed allegations of racial discrimination on the part of the department and mentioning the name of the officer involved, Holden erupted.

“I object. We shouldn’t be giving out names,” said Holden, adding that he had not received a copy of the letter to review.

Hance said that she had received the letter that day and emailed a copy to board members.

“She (Thorsen) is allowed numerous times to slam the Police Department. No one’s here to defend themselves against her accusations. I went through 14 months of that crap,” shouted Holden, holding up a copy of the independent investigation into Thorsen’s complaint of unprofessional conduct.

Board chair Arne Jonynas explains that he read a portion of the letter that was not meant to be read. ‘It’s on me’ said Jonynas

Jonynas tried to finish reading the letter, but Holden said that Jonynas had allowed Thorsen to “slam me” during public comment when – because of the investigation – he was unable to say anything in his defense.

Jonynas told Holden that he was reading the letter for the first time and he realized he was not supposed to read the portion that upset Holden. “It’s on me,” said Jonynas, although he also noted that the information about the case is out in the public and it’s even published on the town website.

Holden objected to Thorsen speaking during the public comment portion of several meetings saying that people should not be speaking about things that are under investigation.

Board member Heather Chase said the board has an obligation to receive public comment.

“When a citizen comes before the board, whether we like what they have to say, whether we agree with what they have to say, whether we’re pissed off and crazy about what they have to say, we have to listen,” said Jonynas. “That’s how it works in a democracy.”

When the board moved on to a discussion of changes that Hance was recommending to the retirement package of police officers, Holden recused himself and left the meeting.

Greenhouse group gets non-binding letter of intent

Community greenhouse group president Cheryl Joy Lipton speaks to the board about maintenance plans

The board reviewed a “non-binding” letter of intent to lease town property to a group that wants to erect a 1930s Lord and Burnham greenhouse and provide growing space for public use. The group has asked the town for the use of either the Canal Street well site or the field behind the Academy Building. Board members suggested a few clarifications and Hance said that there would be a public forum to learn about and comment on the project and which site would be selected. Then a lease would be written and the town will hold a public hearing before the greenhouse could be erected.

Board member Lee Gustafson asked several questions about funding for ongoing maintenance and the cost of decommissioning the installation if the project does not work out. Chester Community Greenhouse and Garden President Cheryl Joy Lipton said the group will not have the funds for maintenance when the greenhouse opens but will continue raising funds. Lipton also said that the group would not have the funds for decommissioning the structure but that it has value and could be sold to cover the cost of taking it down and returning the site to its previous state.

Noting that the town was not selling property to the group for this serious, long-term use, Jonynas said the board needed to make sure the town was protected while still giving the greenhouse group a document that vouched for its relationship with the town to help it raise funds.

Group members noted that they are trying to find an accountant to volunteer as their treasurer.

Pool open, so are surveillance cams

Hance told the board that the town’s pool liner, which had been damaged by a trespassing skateboarder, had finally been repaired and that the pool is now open. She noted that while the person who did the damage had not been found, the surveillance cameras installed as a result are doing their job catching people dumping everything from trash to pavement. The latter was by a truck associated with the work on Route 11 and Hance said that had been “rectified.”

An example of a sign that would alert drivers to the existence of the Green before they turn to go north on Route 103

In something of a reversal of course, Hance said the town would be holding off on putting up the wayfinding signs approved by a state panel earlier this year. The signs – which tell motorists how to get to services and attractions in town – were slated be rolled out slowly beginning this summer.

The cost ($8,000 for two signs according to Hance) was a factor in that strategy, but a new grant program looks like a promising solution that would allow the town to put up $200,000 or more worth of signs all at once. The grant is opening this fall and the only towns eligible are those that have designated downtowns or village centers and have participated in Better Connections grant program. Hance said this is a very small group and that the town’s match for the grant is only 10 percent.

The wayfinding plan grew out of the Village Center Masterplan that was developed in 2017 through a Better Connections grant.

Work on the Brookside trail has been completed and the bridge that will connect it to the field behind the Academy Building is slated to be built in August. In the meantime the town has hired Slippery Slope Goats to get rid of the invasive barberry bushes rather than using herbicides. Hance said the herd – which will be fenced in – will spend six days on the property starting on July 19.

Jonynas called it a “really cool trail” with great views of downtown from the top.

Hance also told the board that the town had hired a fourth employee for the Water and Wastewater departments in preparation for the retirement of superintendent Jeff Holden. Wayne Wickens is a licensed electrician who is certified by the state in wastewater treatment and is working on certification in water.

“He’s really been a great fit,” said Hance.

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  1. Arlene Mutschler says:

    PS? my taxes have DOUBLED in 10 yrs.

  2. Arlene Mutschler says:

    My taxes went up over $400. It hadnt really gone down! So? you wonder why people leave? I know people come here from “away” and think are taxes are low compared to where they come from. IF it jumps like this again? I am out of here. This all feeds inflation. I am sure the increase is to tax those from “away”; (who you think as being ‘rich?); but you tax everyone. And you dont understand, increase taxes will lead to the price bein raised on everything by everyone. Anyone out there ever take an economics class?