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Brattleboro officials bring a message to Montpelier

Selectboard pleas to lawmakers for relief from ‘undue burdens’

The Brattleboro Selectboard made a pitch to lawmakers for a bigger slice of the economic pie March 26.

The lawmakers under the Golden Dome listened politely.

All five members of the Selectboard, interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland, and Town Manager Executive Secretary Jan Anderson had traveled to Montpelier to seek alternatives for raising revenues that could offset municipal property taxes.

“We’re unduly burdened because we’re providing services to the region as a whole,” said Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein, who attested that Brattleboro’s rising municipal tax rate is caused by the town’s status as a regional economic hub.

The board dipped in and out of a special meeting, recessing between sit-downs with Gov. Peter Shumlin, Chief of Staff Elizabeth Miller, Commerce Secretary Lawrence Miller and Deputy Secretary Lucy Leriche, House Speaker Shapleigh “Shap” Smith, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, and members of the Windham County legislative delegation.

According to Gartenstein, Brattleboro, population 12,000, sees two to three times that number of people travel through the town to visit, shop, or work.

The town hosts approximately 11,000 jobs paying an average annual wage of $37,000, for some $400 million in total earned wages, said Gartenstein.

About 20 percent of the town’s Grand List is composed of tax-exempt properties belonging to nonprofit organizations, he added.

Gartenstein said that the town receives relatively little in economic benefit from this activity, yet is on the hook for extra services and infrastructure from public safety to sidewalks, roads, wastewater treatment, library, and parks and recreation programs.

He complained the town is hampered in the limited avenues the state provides it for raising revenue.

Gartenstein said, however, that Brattleboro is not alone in this predicament. He said that seven of the top 11 towns with the highest municipal property tax rate were also economic hubs.

The board raised Brattleboro’s financial concerns with members of the Windham County delegation last year.

At the board’s request, Brattleboro representatives Mollie Burke, Valerie Stuart, and Tristan Toleno introduced bill H.847, which would authorize a study into economic hub towns in the state. The bill is not expected to leave the House Ways and Means Committee this legislative session.

Gartenstein said he wanted to steer clear of offering solutions for raising revenue that would reduce municipal property taxes. Instead, he said he preferred to focus on building awareness of Brattleboro’s plight.

During meetings with lawmakers, Gartenstein offered examples of ways to raise revenue, such as instituting more local option taxes like income and gas taxes; gleaning more money from nonprofit organizations; and having the state return 1 percent of the 6-percent statewide sales tax to economic hub towns.

The Selectboard has not released data on how much of the town budget goes towards servicing visitors. The day’s meetings did not discuss larger issues such as the state’s high cost of living relative to many residents’ wages.

In the fifth-floor office

The board met with Shumlin, Elizabeth Miller, and Lawrence Miller in Shumlin’s office.

“It’s good to have the hometown team outside Brattleboro,” the governor said.

Shumlin also congratulated the board on Town Meeting Members voting against the 1-percent local option sales tax at the Annual Representative Town Meeting on March 22.

“I don’t like giving New Hampshire gifts,” said Shumlin.

“Brattleboro wants to serve as an economic engine, but the property tax is crushing people,” Gartenstein told the governor.

Board member John Allen added that he’s sad to hear of people leaving Brattleboro because they can no longer afford to live in the town.

Shumlin answered that he sympathizes with the town in meeting this challenge, but added he was not a big believer in raising the income tax. “There’s no need for New Hampshire to inherit any more Vermonters,” he said.

Shumlin shot down the board’s request for a study.

“I hate studies,” he said. “They put off judgments that could be made right now.”

Instead, the Legislature has tried to help relieve financial pressures on towns by increasing grants for transportation projects. The Shumlin administration has increased funding for downtown development.

When other towns raised a similar concern years ago, the state government responded by authorizing the local option sales, rooms and meals, and alcohol taxes. The state also increased the amounts of payments in lieu of taxes from nonprofit entities like courthouses, and adjusted Acts 60 and 68, said Shumlin.

Shumlin said the big financial challenge rests with education funding, saying that per-pupil spending is outpacing growth in incomes.

Vibrant downtowns are important, said Gartenstein, but economic development does not necessarily help the municipal government.

Board Vice-Chair Kate O’Connor asked Shumlin whether towns affected by the closure, later this year, of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant should have a seat at the table regarding $10 million in economic development funds that plant owner Entergy agreed to give to the state.

O’Connor added that ongoing regional efforts did not include towns.

Shumlin agreed that all the money should not go to one entity, and added that it should fund more than bureaucracy, staffing, logo, branding, or study.

The money, Shumlin said, “should go to incentives for real job growth.”

Lawrence Miller agreed, adding that the money should also fund community-supported projects vetted through a competitive process.

“Not capacity, not fluff,” he said.

As the meeting closed, Shumlin offered: “It takes 1,000 good ideas to make progress.”

Raising awareness

The board’s pitch had altered somewhat by the time members walked across the parking lot between the governor’s fifth-floor office and the Statehouse.

When the board sat down with House Speaker Smith, Gartenstein said he hoped first to build recognition that the problems facing economic hub towns are statewide, and he hoped Brattleboro could build a coalition with similar towns.

Town governments can’t raise revenue as fast as expenses without hurting the taxpayers, he told Smith.

“It’s a common concern that we face within these hubs,” said Gartenstein.

When asked by board members if other towns had brought similar concerns to him, Smith said none had.

Smith said the only other person to discuss the issue with him was former Brattleboro Town Manager Barbara Sondag.

But, he added, he would bring any ideas that the Selectboard had regarding the topic to the House.

Kicking in money, built foundations

Gathered around tables in the statehouse cafeteria, the board members chatted with Rep. Michael Mrowicki, D-Putney.

“What we’re saying is that Putney needs to kick in [money],” said Allen.

“That’s what SeVEDS (Southeast Vermont Economic Strategy) told us too,” Mrowicki answered.

Standing in the lobby outside the House chamber, Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, pondered Brattleboro’s economic pressures.

She said that the county had more than one economic area — the Deerfield Valley, for example.

“I’m concerned,” she said.

The county has worked to build an economic development foundation over the past seven years through activities like SeVEDS, she said.

Manwaring said she hoped previous achievements were also considered as the Selectboard moves forward with its plans.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #248 (Wednesday, April 2, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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