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Tax-exempt committee reports on progress

PUTNEY—Nancy Olsen and Carl Noe of the tax exempt committee reported on their progress at the Nov. 18 Selectboard meeting.

The committee was formed at this year’s town meeting, mostly in response to Landmark College’s failed attempts at gaining tax-exempt status on three of its properties.

Olsen, who made the motion to create the committee and offered to serve on it, said its task is to study “how many tax-exempt properties do we have [and] what’s the history of the exemptions that are voted on.”

She noted, of the latter, “nobody seemed to know.”

The committee met seven times this year, Olsen said, and the first few meetings mostly allowed committee members to learn about how properties are assessed and what the statutes are governing the process.

The group then figured out how to put the information together in a way that will be helpful to residents.

Olsen said they made a spreadsheet of all exempt Putney properties, and what kind of exemptions they fell under. Contract exemptions are the only type residents vote on, and the contracts have a finite time period. Non-taxable properties cover things like schools, houses of worship, and state and federal lands. Current use exemptions offer agriculture and forestry tax reductions; and disabled veteran exemptions provide $40,000 off the homestead value.

Although both Olsen and Noe said they have gathered a lot of information, there is still much to learn, especially regarding the history of some of the town’s specific exemptions.

Olsen asked the board for guidance in how to present the information to residents, what else should be included in the reports, and should their findings appear in the annual town report.

Town Manager Cynthia Stoddard suggested the committee simply inform voters at town meeting. Because there are no contract exemptions ending this year that need to be voted on at town meeting, it is a good time to get residents up-to-date, Stoddard said.

Board member Josh Laughlin recommended the tax-exempt committee contact the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) to learn how other towns handle this issue. He also suggested the committee reach out to the state for guidance in how to best manage what he guesses are “the most contentious” types of tax-exempt properties: non-profits and educational institutions.

Laughlin said “people might respond most strongly to” and have the most questions about the “significant real estate values” of schools.

Selectboard Chair Steve Hed said a townsperson had expressed to him they found it “ironic” that a school is exempt from a tax that pays money to schools.

“You have a public school that’s losing money because of a school that’s getting exempted from taxes,” Hed said, noting that set-up “puts more of a burden on the people.”

Stoddard reminded him that the rules addressing tax-exempt status are “different for colleges and private K-12” schools, and “we don’t have a choice — it’s governed by statute.” She also acknowledged she does not know enough about those statutes, and the committee could help gather and present that information, as could the town attorney, and the VLCT.

“That would be really helpful to understand the difference between the two statutes,” Stoddard said.

“We can’t be alone in this,” Laughlin said, mentioning a few other Vermont college towns, such as Burlington and Marlboro.

Olsen said she and the rest of the committee would continue researching the statutes and try to bring their findings to the board by Town Meeting day.

“You’ve given us a lot of information already,” Stoddard said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #335 (Wednesday, December 9, 2015). This story appeared on page D2.

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