Local meals/room tax revenue was to reduce high tax burden, not fund marketing

BRATTLEBORO — Here are some issues to think about prior to Brattleboro's Annual Representative Town Meeting coming up on Saturday, March 23.

To make rational decisions about spending, one must carefully consider the municipality's ability to generate revenue. Brattleboro has a Grand List that has been relatively stagnant in recent years because we are limited geographically and because we have high taxes - two factors that chill expansion and development.

But even more important, Brattleboro is a hub town with a population of 12,500 supporting a hinterland of nearly 40,000 to 50,000 people daily. As such, we provide the services, infrastructure, and economic-development tools for the entire region.

The result is high property taxes in Brattleboro and other hub towns because of the basic inequity of few providing for many.

Because of the limited option of raising money through property taxes, Brattleboro and other hub towns need to look to other sources of income to, hopefully, reduce the growth of property taxes, which are already high. Note that I said “reduce the growth,” not “reduce.”

A few years ago, a forward-thinking Selectboard recommended and got approved a 1-percent local-option rooms and meals tax, and it has become a great success, raising more than $400,000 annually to defray tax increases.

An item on the Town Meeting agenda calls on members to appropriate some of that money (approximately $42,000) to create and implement an extra marketing plan to promote Brattleboro. This is not a good idea, because that is not what the money was intended to be used for: to cut the growth in taxes.

Also, four functioning economic-development entities - the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance (DBA), and Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) - already serve Brattleboro.

Two of these organizations are already funded by tax dollars: SVEDS, by municipal grants, and the DBA, by downtown property owners who pay extra taxes directly to that entity.

If these entities want to create an extra marketing campaign to promote our town, then they should reallocate their budgets to do so, not tap a proven and successful revenue source.

Another potential source of revenue on the Town Meeting Agenda is the 1-percent local-option sales tax - a particularly thorny issue, because Brattleboro already has a sales tax, and we are adjacent to New Hampshire, which has no such tax.

Opponents will say that it will be the last nail in the coffin for retail and drive consumers farther east and to the internet. I believe consumers are already there.

Reliable estimates of this tax are that it could raise, after state fees, approximately $600,000 annually for the town. This could be an important source of income for Brattleboro to reduce the growth of property taxes and perhaps fund many of the proposed capital improvements necessary for our town to remain a successful hub for the region.

Finally, I have some comments about the proposed inspection policy for rental properties, another agenda item for Annual Representative Town Meeting.

As a landlord for 26 years, I have developed a tremendous relationship with the town of Brattleboro, namely the fire department. I have found all the officials extremely cooperative and responsive in solving any tenant issues, including life safety, hoarding, and other related problems.

I do not think that this proposed policy is needed. However, if the policy is approved, the town should be aware of potential liability if an accident occurs subsequent to an inspection.

Also, 600 inspections a year would be a huge responsibility for two people. It does not sound like much, but those 15 inspections a week, week after week, could be a challenge, especially with sickness and vacations.

I would suggest that if this policy is enacted, a tiered fee schedule be imposed with an increasing fee structure corresponding to the unit's size and capacity.

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