BRATTLEBORO — School tax bills are no longer projected to increase by as much, thanks to quick work by the Vermont House Ways and Means Committee after reassessing how revenues will affect the Education Fund.
Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Windham-2-1, who serves as vice chairwoman of the committee, said a yield bill that factors into school tax rates usually doesn’t change projected rates all that much before they are voted on because state officials have a better grasp on revenues. But this year was different due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought about some concern about revenues that was later calmed by new information on how federal aid affected the Education Fund.
For the Windham Southeast School District, rates are now anticipated to increase by 1.7 percent in Brattleboro, 1.4 percent in Dummerston, 0.5 percent in Guilford and 0.5 percent in Putney. When the board approved the budget for voters to consider on the March 2 ballot, rates were projected to go up by 5.2 percent in Brattleboro, 5 percent in Dummerston, 4.1 percent in Guilford and 4 percent in Putney.
The yield bill originates in Kornheiser’s committee and was approved by the committee last week. She said it usually doesn’t change much after it passes out of her committee and is taken up by others.
Each year, the Vermont Department of Taxes issues a letter with projected revenues going into the Education Fund for the year. That takes into account tax revenue from sales, and meals and rooms.
Kornheiser said when the letter went out on Dec. 1, the assumption was that non-property tax revenue would be way down this year due to the pandemic and that property taxes would need to go up a lot if spending stayed the same.
“They had to issue that letter based on the information that they had at the time,” she said, adding that the letter indicated the situation might not be as dire as it sounds but “that nuance gets a little bit lost.”
Kornheiser said the Emergency Board met last week and found that revenue is looking very similar to projections made a year ago under pre-pandemic assumptions. Based on numbers from the state economist and head of the Joint Fiscal Office, the Legislature and Gov. Scott’s administration were able to agree on what they believe is an accurate revenue projection.
The sunnier forecast had to do with an influx of federal spending, Kornheiser said, referring to direct benefits to individuals, unemployment to individuals, and Paycheck Protection Program loans. That led to a boost in people’s spending and revenues for the state, she said.
“So because of that, the ed fund actually had much more money than we anticipated,” she said.
Kornheiser said historically, the Ways and Means Committee starts the yield bill by looking at the number of students and the total of school budgets combined, and the yield is finalized later in the year when there’s a clearer sense of education spending as warnings are approved for communities to vote on school budgets.
“This year,” she said, “because so many [budget votes] might be pushed back because of the pandemic and because we know voters are so concerned with this really false notice of a very high rate, and because our teachers and school staff and our students are working harder and struggling harder than they ever have before, we felt it was important to move faster on this bill and send a really reassuring message about what property taxes will be.”
She said the yield bill brings down projected school tax rates considerably across the state.
WSESD Board Chairman David Schoales said the unified tax rate for the district is down by 1.5 cents and is lower than it was when the merged district formed two years ago. Each town’s rate is adjusted by the common level of appraisal (CLA), which is not controlled by local school boards and involves factoring in recent house sales in a community with the goal of ensuring Vermonters pay a comparable amount of education taxes on properties of equal values.
Laurie Garland, director of finance for Windham Central Supervisory Union, said based on the new projected yield, the estimated unified tax rate for the West River Education District in the budget being proposed to voters on a March 24 ballot is 1.5 cents or 0.74 percent less than the current fiscal year. Rates are anticipated increase by 8.8 percent in Brookline, 2.26 percent in Jamaica, 4.28 percent in Newfane and 0.12 percent in Townshend.
When the board passed a budget to present voters, the rates were anticipated to rise by 10.64 percent in Brookline, 7 percent in Jamaica, 5.48 percent in Newfane and 4.63 percent in Townshend.
Garland said the CLA had a major effect in Brookline and Jamaica.
Windham Southwest Business Manager Karen Atwood said Twin Valley’s rates are projected to decrease by 5.72 percent in Whitingham and 19.81 percent in Wilmington if the budget is approved by voters on March 2. Previously, the rates were expected to decrease by 0.2 percent in Whitingham and 15.13 percent in Wilmington.