Thursday October 11, 2012

On Saturday, Oct. 20, Brattleboro Town Meeting Representatives will decide whether the town will renovate its fire and police facilities and, if so, how this work will be funded.

Brattleboro's fire and police facilities are old, decayed, and need repair. Modern fire trucks are too big to fit through the doors and into the bays at Brattleboro's two fire stations. The floor at Central Fire is too weak to support the weight of modern trucks. Vehicles are stacked two deep at Central Fire, and safety issues arise when trucks need to pull into traffic. Ventilation systems at our fire stations are inadequate, creating health risks.

The police station's cell block area is down a dangerous flight of stairs and is not ADA compliant. The police department is divided in half by a public hallway, which interferes with law enforcement activities. There is little privacy available for victims and witnesses who need to come to the police station, and inadequate appropriate space for long-term evidence and record storage.

If town meeting members vote to authorize the $14.1-million bond to pay for renovations to our fire and police department facilities, Brattleboro will have to repay approximately $20 million over 20 years, or about $1 million annually. Unless money to pay for the project is generated from a source other than municipal property taxes, this will result in an increase of about 10.5 cents on the current residential real estate tax rate of $1.12 per $100 of assessed value. That equates to about a $104 annual tax increase on a $100,000 home and a $260 increase on a $250,000 home.

I have been concerned for a long time about Brattleboro's steep municipal property tax rates, which are among the highest in Vermont. In searching for causes for this tax burden, I have concluded that Brattleboro's property owners are being called upon to pay more taxes than would otherwise be necessary for a town with our level of population because we are funding municipal services appropriate for a regional commercial hub.

Approximately 12,000 people live in Brattleboro. During the day, however, the size of the town swells. Thousands of people come to Brattleboro every day, to work, attend school, shop, and receive health care services. Many more people travel to Brattleboro as visitors and tourists. With this increased concentration of population and increased level of activity comes a corresponding need for increased municipal services, including fire and police services. Both our residents, and the many non-resident workers, shoppers, students, patients, visitors, tourists, and others who spend significant time in Brattleboro, have medical emergencies, get into crashes and fights, get hurt, and commit and are victims of crime here.

But it is Brattleboro's property owners who bear the burden of paying, through their property taxes, for the increased municipal services Brattleboro needs to provide because it is southeastern Vermont's regional hub. In fact, rankings of Vermont towns by tax burden indicate that many of our municipalities that serve as regional hubs also are burdened with very high property tax rates.

If we need to pay $1 million a year for the next 20 years to improve Brattleboro's fire and police facilities, then I believe the burden cannot be imposed only on the town's property taxpayers. Our property taxes are already way too high, and we cannot afford such a big increase. Rather, I believe the cost should be spread more equally, taking into account that Brattleboro has to expend more for municipal services because it is this region's commercial hub.

Approximately $100 million of Brattleboro's annual commerce comes from sales of goods that are subject to the 1-percent local option sales tax authorized by the state. As a result, if we adopt the tax in Brattleboro, it should raise about $1 million annually. Vermont would take one-third of that money as its administrative fee, which would leave about $660,000 annually for Brattleboro. Adopting the 1-percent local option sales tax would mean that our property taxpayers would see their tax rates increase closer to 4 cents per $100, instead of the 10.5 cents per $100 increase that would otherwise be needed to pay for the fire-police project.

In an ideal world, there would be other ways besides the local option sales tax to raise money to pay for the fire-police renovations. The most obvious alternatives would be to raise revenue by taxing the wide range of services and goods that draw people to Brattleboro. Many people travel into Brattleboro daily for work, and a small municipal tax could be imposed on incomes. Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, the Retreat, and many health care provider offices and pharmacies are located here, and a small municipal levy could be imposed on the cost of health care services. Municipal revenue could be generated from a small tax on goods not covered by the 1-percent local option sales tax, including gasoline, cigarettes, and packaged beverages. A combination of these taxes would spread the burden even further, and more proportionately.

The state, however, has not authorized raising revenue in these ways. Instead, approval of the local option sales tax is the only viable alternative of which I am aware for shifting some of the cost of the fire-police renovations from Brattleboro's property taxpayers, and distributing those costs more fairly, to be shared by people who come to Brattleboro because it is the regional commercial hub, and who then generate and purchase services and goods here.

The 1-percent local option sales tax poses risk and creates uncertainty. Local merchants are understandably concerned about potential losses of sales, and I fully share those concerns. Moreover, I recognize that a loss of taxable sales could lead to lower revenue for Brattleboro generated by the 1-percent sales tax than $660,000 per year.

I am even more concerned, however, about the ability of Brattleboro's property owners to absorb a 10.5-cent increase in the municipal tax rate. Accordingly, while I am convinced of the need to renovate our fire and police facilities, I cannot support the bond to do that work unless we also decide to adopt the 1-percent local option sales tax.

David Gartenstein is vice chairman of the Brattleboro Selectboard, but the opinions expressed here are his own.