Tuesday November 27, 2012

DUMMERSTON -- Southeast Vermont Learning Collaborative serves teachers from 72 schools in 12 supervisory unions.

And administrators argue that the Route 5 building that serves as headquarters for all of that activity is tax-exempt due to the collaborative's status as an educational nonprofit.

That has led to a prolonged tax dispute with Dummerston officials and the possibility of a court battle. But a collaborative official now believes that "some confusion on both sides is clearing up" and the matter can be resolved.

"Really, it's at the point of, what's fair and reasonable?" said Paul Smith, secretary-treasurer of the learning collaborative's board.

The organization was formed more than a decade ago to provide professional development to educators. It covers 11 supervisory unions in Windham and Windsor counties and one in Orange County.

Until last year, the collaborative had been renting space in a state-owned building that formerly served as a regional library just north of Brattleboro.

"We had that arrangement for quite some time, and everybody was pretty happy with it," Smith said.

But state officials decided to sell the property due to concerns about long-term maintenance costs, Smith said. The state eventually sold the building directly to the learning collaborative in 2011 for about $45,000.

The collaborative applied for exemption from property taxes. But Dummerston's board of listers -- citing advice from the town's attorney, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and the state Department of Property Valuation and Review -- denied that request in July.

A few months later, with the matter having come before the Selectboard, town attorney Bob Fisher wrote that "criteria in addition to an organization's nonprofit status must be met in order to claim exemption from town property taxes."

Fisher requested that the learning collaborative supply information including its bylaws and articles of incorporation as well as records showing which other groups leased or had used space in the collaborative's building.

Casey Murrow, the collaborative's director, replied by detailing many educational uses of the building along with community meetings.

"We have not been approached by any for-profit businesses for the use of this space," Murrow wrote, adding that the organization leases space to Windham Childcare Association "for storage of their bookmobile and a workroom for preparation and storage of books."

But that letter quickly was followed by one from Fisher's office saying officials were "concerned" that the collaborative still had not paid any taxes.

"The town Selectboard seeks to resolve this matter and receive the taxes due," the letter said.

Earlier this month, the Selectboard and collaborative representatives met to try and clear the air. Selectboard Chairman Lewis White said the letter demanding tax payment "shouldn't have been sent," and both sides acknowledged miscommunications.

But a lengthy discussion did not resolve the collaborative's tax status. Nor did it produce a tax assessment or a payment in lieu of taxes that might be acceptable to both sides.

"We believe . . . that we are a tax-exempt organization," Smith told the Selectboard. "We think it's defensible that we shouldn't be on the list as taxable."

White disagreed, saying that "if it went to court, it may not be as clear as you think it is."

He later added that "I don't think it all comes down to who's in your building. I think it comes down to what you do."

The two sides also exchanged numbers that were far apart. Smith urged the board to consider a set payment to the town in place of a tax assessment, making an initial offer of $1,500 annually.

"I don't consider that a serious offer," board member Zeke Goodband replied.

Selectboard member Tom Bodett said the collaborative's full tax bill would be $7,417. He suggested the organization pay 45 percent of that, or $3,338.

Smith, though, later said both of those amounts would place a considerable burden on the collaborative's budget.

At the meeting earlier this month, Selectboard members said they would await more information from the town's attorney before engaging in further negotiation.

"Our whole mission here is to protect the people of Dummerston," board member Steve Glabach said.

But the collaborative's board also must justify its expenses. Smith this week said administrators still are "more than willing" to come up with a payment in lieu of taxes "to recognize that we value being in the town."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.