Brattleboro Selectboard finds limited support in Montpelier
MONTPELIER -- The Brattleboro Selectboard traveled to Montpelier Wednesday looking for some support, and ideas on how the town can raise additional revenue to combat its rising municipal tax rate.
The board met with its legislators before the session began to convince them to support a bill that would study why regional economic hubs like Brattleboro have such high taxes, and if there were ways to raise additional revenue from the people who do business within the town every day.
A bill was drafted but it has not left the House Ways and Means Committee and the board took the drive north to see if they could get some traction on the issue.
They met with Gov. Peter Shumlin, with members of his administration and with House and Senate leaders.
And while the Selectboard's story caused each of the lawmakers to nod their heads "yes" in recognition of their plight, it was clear that there was no money or support to advance the bill this year.
"I hate studies," Shumlin said. "I think studies do nothing but put off judgments that can be made right now and don't necessarily tell you much that you didn't know already. So whenever they want to put something off in Montpelier they do a study."
Selectboard Chairman David Gartenestein made his pitch to the governor, and to legislative leaders throughout the day, trying to explain the specific economic challenges economic hubs like Brattleboro face.
Taxpayers in municipalities like Brattleboro, Gartenstein said, have to fund emergency services and public works departments, while thousands of employees, consumers and patients seeking medical services drive in to do business every day.
Brattleboro has about 12,000 people he said, but thousands more come in every day and approximately $400 million in wages are earned among the 11,000-or-so jobs that are located in Brattleboro.
About $1 billion in gross sales are generated in state taxes, Gartenstein said, while local taxpayers are left to fund all of the services that allow the jobs and economic activity to continue.
"We have to support all of that activity with municipal services," Gartenstein said. "The expenses we bear are different in kind rather than just in degree from the surrounding towns."
Shumlin said he has already heard from other municipalities that were facing the same challenges and there was no need to fund a study.
Shumlin said he understood the bind Brattleboro was in and said his administration was trying to support municipalities within the existing funding system.
He has increased the amount of money that comes back to municipalities through the gas tax, he said, and also designated more of the sales tax toward the education fund, which he said helps keep down property taxes.
"This isn't a new challenge. It's one I'm sympathetic to," Shumlin said. "We're doing everything we can to get money back to you."
"How do we create affective change then?" Gartenstein asked. "This is a shifting settlement pattern in the state that economic activity is centralized within the hub and that we wind up getting taxed more at the municipal level. How do we deal with that at a statewide level?"
Board member David Schoales also tried to convince the governor to support the study.
"We're in a situation that may be shared by other towns in the state and there's a tax inequity there that may exist in other places," Schoales said. "What we would like is to get the study started. It needs to be done so that we can understand what we are dealing with and then start looking for solutions."
Shumlin said the Legislature looked at the issue about 10 years ago, and at that time lawmakers gave towns the authority to institute a local option tax, which Brattleboro has turned down twice now.
The governor said education taxes were actually hitting communities harder and he asked the the board to help him advance the conversation that would address the state's education funding challenges.
"We need to right-size the ship for the number of students we're educating," Shumlin said. "If we all really want to make progress on property taxes, which we do, we need to have a really creative conversation about how we right-size the ship so that we don't continue to see our per-pupil spending go through the roof."
Lawrence Miller, Shumlin's Secretary of Commerce and Community Development, said the state has done some studies on the issue. He said the Treasurer's office looked at municipal infrastructure, and at the costs associated with water and waste water plants which are borne by property owners within the economic hubs.
"It does feel that every time we come back to look at this, it feels like it is tied right in there," Miller said. "That's a looming issue for all communities. All the county services are there. All the nonprofits are there, and it makes it very challenging."
The board also wanted to talk about the $10 million in economic development funding that might come to the state from Entergy Vermont Yankee.
Entergy and the state reached an understanding after years of court battles that led to the company promising the funding if the state dropped its looming legal challenges.
That understanding has to be approved by the Public Service Board.
Selectboard member Kate O'Connor told the governor that the Selectboard wants to be included in any conversations over how that money is spent.
"Whatever the mechanism is for how this money will be distributed, as a town, we want to be at the table somehow in the decision making process," said O'Connor. "We know down in Windham County there is a regional effort, but it's important to remember that the towns are not at the table within that regional effort."
The state leaders were more receptive to that issue.
Shumlin said he wanted the money used for real development and job growth, and he did not want it wasted on bureaucracy, staffing, logos or branding and studies.
And he said the town did have a role in deciding how some of the economic development was spent.
"We should be thinking about what is the fairest way, how do we get the biggest bang for our buck, and what do we want," Shumlin said. "My view is that obviously the town should be at the table. It shouldn't be just one entity deciding what happens with that money, and I will use the influence of this office to make sure that is the case."
Miller said that while the specific spending mechanism was still being contemplated, the money would likely flow through the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
The funding would be distributed, he said, similarly to the way Community Development Block Grants are given out, without the strict federal rules that go along with the CDBG projects.
"We want to see real projects that have active support from the people who are going to drive them to completion in the near term," he said. "There has to be general agreement that these are going to make a difference, and that they are going to make a difference quickly."
The board also met with House Speaker Shap Smith, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, Commerce and Community Development Deputy Secretary Lucy Leriche, and Department of Economic Development Commissioner Lisa Gosselin.
At each meeting Gartenstein gave the same story, and received similar responses.
Gartenstein said the board was encouraged to work with other municipalities directly to build support and possibly come back to the Legislature with ideas and more backing.
"One of our plans going forward will be to reach out to other towns that are similarly situated and determine whether we can build a coalition working with them," said Gartenstein. "Our goal was to raise awareness about the challenges that regional economic hubs face and we've had a chance to speak with the president pro tem of the Senate, the House speaker and with the governor about those issues. I think it's productive in that regard, surely."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.
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