Selectboard supports Home Rule pilot program

Wessel calls VLCT proposal ‘kind of wonky’

BRATTLEBORO — It may take a while - or it might not happen at all - but the Selectboard has brought the town one small step closer to self-governance.

At the Jan. 8 Selectboard meeting, Town Manager Peter B. Elwell asked for the Board's official support for a proposal the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) wants to introduce this legislative session: a limited self-governance pilot program for the state's municipalities.

Currently, all Vermont cities, towns, and villages operate under Dillon's Rule, named for the judge who handed down pivotal rulings in the 1800s that limit municipal governance decisions to those explicitly mentioned in the state or U.S. constitutions.

Those decisions include ordinances and Selectboard actions - including revenue streams to ease the burden on property taxpayers. Innovative or creative solutions are difficult: if state statute doesn't allow it, the town can't collect it.

Elwell noted Vermont is one of nine states in the union that do not allow home rule for municipalities. In the other 41 states, municipalities “can take any action that is not expressly prohibited by the state government,” said Elwell.

The 10-year pilot project that would allow a small number of Vermont municipalities to apply for participation in Home Rule to a Legislature-created oversight committee.

Those towns would operate under self-governance, and the state committee would judge whether it's successful.

Elwell said the VLCT has followed the lead of West Virginia, whose pilot program has been successful and “keeps expanding.”

Elwell also pointed out that the Selectboard, in making a decision now, is not deciding “whether we want to participate in the experiment.”

That, he said, would come “much later” - if the Legislature passes it. Under those circumstances, the Selectboard would weigh in on whether to participate, subject to approval by Representative Town Meeting.

If RTM gives the okay, the town would apply to the state in the fall of 2020.

More flexibility for hub town?

“We've asked, as a regional and economic hub community, for more flexibility in managing our own affairs, and particularly our revenue streams, so we wouldn't be completely dependent on the property tax,” said Elwell.

Selectboard member David Schoales noted this could help the town with property tax relief, and he wants to get RTM in on the discussion.

Board member Tim Wessel wants to bring the conversation to the general public, especially because, he said, “it's kind of wonky.”

The Selectboard unanimously approved of giving its support for the pilot program.

Selectboard Chair Kate O'Connor asked Elwell to keep the board informed as the proposal makes its way through the Legislature.

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