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Putney's Tax Exempt Committee issues report

PUTNEY—Toward the end of this year’s town meeting, Nancy Olson gave a report on the Tax Exempt Committee’s findings.

After last year’s lengthy town meeting debate on whether Putney should exempt three Landmark College properties, voters decided not only to defeat the associated articles, but to form a committee to explore issues surrounding property tax exemptions.

That suggestion came from Olson, and at that meeting, she offered to serve on the committee.

According to the document describing its mission, “The purpose of the tax exempt committee is to review the Vermont State Statutes that apply to property that qualify for tax exempt status, examine all of the properties that have a property tax exempt status in the Town of Putney and compile data and answers to” five questions.

During Olson’s report at this year’s town meeting, she answered some of the questions, and directed interested parties to the committee’s full findings, located at the town offices and on Putney’s official website, putneyvt.org [go to “Property Tax Exempt Committee” on the “Documents” tab].

“We found out some really interesting things,” Olson said, giving “contract exemptions” as one example, explaining those are voted on at town meeting. Other exemptions are made according to state statute.

Voters can exempt property from municipal taxes, from educational taxes, or both, Olson said.

When voters exempt a property, “they are saying with their vote they value the organization and its mission enough to assume responsibility for the tax the property would otherwise generate,” she explained.

According to figures Olson shared, Putney’s grand list shows 1,115 parcels, of which 1,013 are taxable. Of the 71 tax-exempt properties, one is owned by the federal government, seven are owned by the state, and 32 — including 15 cemeteries — are owned by the town.

Of the 31 remaining tax-exempt properties, three are houses of worship, five are private educational institutions, 14 are contract exemptions voted on by townspeople, and nine of them are homesteads of disabled veterans — to whom voters decided to offer a reduction on their property taxes.

In response to the question, “What economic impact do these properties have on the town?” Olson shared data officials at Landmark College provided the committee: they claimed faculty and students put an estimated $100,000 per year into local business’s cash registers, of which $78,000 is students’ actual tracked spending.

In addition, the four private schools make voluntary annual donations to Putney, Olson said, and this past year, the total was $62,400.

Resident Lawrence O’Neill asked if data was available comparing what the schools donate, and what their tax bill would be. “Are we relieving them of millions of dollars and they’re giving us $62,000,” he asked.

Town Manager Cynthia Stoddard said, “If we billed them at the full assessed value of the property, yes, it’s a huge number,” although she added she did not know the exact figures.

But, she said, state statute governs much of how the town taxes schools. And, the town voted to exempt Landmark College as a whole from property tax in 1984, Stoddard said.

The town could overturn a past ruling on property tax exemptions, board member Josh Laughlin said, but “it would be a big rebuke” against those institutions. Instead, Laughlin said, the town should ensure new parcels are taxed appropriately.

“What impact do these organizations have on town services?” was another of the five questions.

Putney Fire Chief Tom Goddard and the Windham County Sheriff’s Department provided statistics and narrative answering that question, which are included in the committee’s report.

In 2015, the fire department made 137 emergency calls to the town’s five schools, and “[p]ersonnel hours would be well in excess of 500 hours per year, for all school responses combined,” the report said.

Now that the committee has worked so hard to gather this information, and the town has the data to work with, “what are we going to do with it,” asked resident Tom Ehrenberg, adding, “we will receive these [property tax exemption] requests again."

Laughlin assured Ehrenberg town officials will discuss this issue over the next 6 to 12 months, and while the Selectboard may not make new policy, they will use the committee’s findings as guidelines.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #347 (Wednesday, March 9, 2016).

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