BRATTLEBORO -- Ever since the Selectboard began working on the 2015 budget, the board members have made it clear that it was going to be a very tough year to fund services without a significant tax increase.
With payments on the police-fire facilities project coming due, very little excess capital from previous years to use, and the usual increases in fuel oil, insurance and contracted wages, the board says the municipal tax rate -- which is currently $1.13 per $1,000 of assessed value -- could increase by up to 15 cents next year. And that is on top of the town's already high municipal tax rate, which is among the highest in the state.
On Thursday the Selectboard asked Brattleboro's state legislators for help.
The board met with Reps. Mollie Burke and Tristan Toleno, and Sens. Jeanette White and Peter Galbraith for about an hour Thursday.
The board wants the Legislature to begin studying whether any statewide, or regional, funding might be available for regional economic hubs like Brattleboro.
At the meeting Thursday Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein said similar economic hubs in the state, such as Springfield, Newport, Barre City, Montpelier and Rutland City also have municipal tax rates over $1. These towns, Gartenstein said, have to invest in roads, emergency response departments and other capital projects so that people from outside of those towns can come to work and shop, and he said the model was not sustainable.
"For many years I've tried to understand why we've got such a high tax rate here in Brattleboro," Gartenstein said. "We are providing the services for the economic activity for the region as a whole. We are an economic hub and the burden falls on real estate taxpayers here in Brattleboro. It seems to me this is not just an issue that confronts Brattleboro."
Gartenstein said Brattleboro supports about 11,000 jobs with an average wage of $37,000, which creates about $400 million in income.
Town businesses also generate just less than $1 billion in gross receipts and almost $100 million in sales tax, a portion of which, Gartenstein said, comes from and goes to areas outside of Brattleboro.
Gartenstein said the Selectboard wants its Windham County lawmakers to go back to Montpelier next month and try to get a study going that looks at the problem on a statewide level, and also investigates what other states do to raise and expend money on a county level.
"We're hoping to start a statewide dialogue and investigation of the regional economic hub issue. It seems that there are enough people living in the regional economic hubs, that there's enough of a group of legislators that we should be able to start studying the issue and start addressing the issue," Gartenstein said. "It's a fundamental tax structure issue that has to be addressed at a state level. We want to get the dialogue started."
The legislators acknowledged the problem and also said it would not be easy to come up with solutions, but they seemed receptive to the idea of trying to at least study the issue.
"We have to study it, and grapple with it, because this is the reality of much of the state," said Toleno. "The problem of rural economic development is the one that we are facing. I would love to see the regional development groups coming and supporting this as a statewide initiative because I think it's a shared problem for almost everybody in this state. We are all in this together."
Galbraith, who is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said there was very little appetite at every level of government to raise additional taxes and he said it would be a challenge to come up with a way to administer and gather revenue from residents who live outside of a municipality. And he said that while it might be possible to administer funds from the state budget for regional projects, it was going to be much harder to find that money.
"You are talking about publicly funded infrastructure and maybe if there is a project in a regional economic hub that serves the community you could find it in the Capital Budget," Galbraith said. "But we live in a world of very finite budgets and unless somebody has a roadmap to say, ‘OK, what should we cut,' that is really the dilemma. You raise a great issue to which I don't have an immediate solution."
A few ideas for coming up with the money were presented, but Gartenstein said he did not call the meeting to settle the issues at a one-hour meeting.
Gartenstein said that while the issue, and solutions, have been debated for along time, he wanted the legislators to first fund a study that would objectively examine the financial challenges that face the municipalities in the state that are economic hubs, and talk about possible fixes later.
"I'm trying to steer clear of talking about the solutions on the front end based upon the risk that everyone gets shot down and then there's no global effort to address the issue as a whole," Gartenstein said. "I think that at least in recognizing the issue and starting to study why the issue rises we can then hopefully get pointed into some solutions that can provide some long term belief here."