August 9, 2007
By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — Recently adopted residential school tax rates in the five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union towns are lower than they were a year ago despite higher spending at the four ANwSU schools.
Although the municipal and non-residential school portion of the tax rates in Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton and Waltham more often than not increased, the homestead school tax rate in those four towns fell. The residential school tax rates in Addison, Ferrisburgh and Panton dropped by about 3 cents, and the homestead rate in Waltham fell by almost 9 cents. (See box for full rate information, including municipal and non-residential rates.)
The Vergennes homestead school tax rate dropped by 99.05 cents to $1.1194 for every $100 of property value. But the city just finished a reappraisal of its property that city officials said will shift more of the tax burden from commercial property to homes, and although the residential school tax rate is lower most city homeowners will pay more in school taxes.
ANwSU taxpayers can thank legislators for the general decrease in their tax rates. Late in this past session lawmakers lowered the base residential statewide tax rate by three cents, from 90 to 87 cents, following a trend in recent years of providing tax relief to homeowners.
ANwSU business manager Donna Corcoran said there are other factors that favor the district in the complicated formulas the state uses to calculate local school taxes, but the lowered statewide rate was the largest element working for local taxpayers.
“The legislature reduced the base again,” Corcoran said. “That will start you down the path.”
The ANwSU towns’ complete rates for homeowners, including portion of the rates need to support town spending, are:
• Addison: $1.4607 for every $100 of property, an overall increase of 2.917 cents due to a 6-cent increase in the municipal rate.
• Ferrisburgh: $1.4888, an overall decrease of 3.25 cents.
• Panton: $1.9197, an overall increase of about 12.8 cents. Panton’s municipal rate rose by almost 20 cents due to higher highway spending and a deficit that had to be retired.
• Waltham: $1.6283, an overall decrease of 4.76 cents.
• Vergennes: $1.6846, an overall decrease of about $1.44. However, city officials estimated after the reappraisal was finished that homes made up 72 percent of the city’s grand list, compared to 65 percent in the previous grand list, which dated back to the early 1990s. Overall, homeowners will thus shoulder more of the city’s tax burden, they said.
The five towns’ comprehensive rates for owners of nonresidential property, including the municipal rates, are:
• Addison: $1.5203, an increase of 8.5 cents.
• Ferrisburgh: $1.5733, an increase of 5.2 cents.
• Panton: $2.0214, an increase of 19.05 cents.
• Waltham: $1.7211, a decrease of 0.81 cent.
• Vergennes: $1.6855, a decrease of $1.5972.
Within those homestead school tax rates, Addison’s, adopted on July 3, dropped by 3.09 cents; Ferrisburgh’s, adopted on July 17, dropped by 2.86 cents; Panton’s, adopted on July 20, fell by 2.98 cents; and Waltham’s, adopted on Monday, dropped by 8.76 cents.
Two other factors as well as the legislators’ 3-cent largesse helped keep the rates in check in the four towns. First, each has reappraised in recent years and has largely accurate property values. If towns have low, inaccurate property assessments, common level of appraisal (CLA) adjustments made by the Vermont Department of Taxes can hike local tax rates.
According to state figures, the four towns’ CLAs range from a low of 93.44 in Panton (meaning that Panton property is, theoretically, assessed at about 93 percent of its value) to 114.26 in Addison (meaning that Addison property is assessed at about 114 percent of its value).
Ferrisburgh and Panton are at almost exactly 100 percent of fair market value, according to tax department calculations, and the four towns are benefiting in tax stability.
“That accurate appraisal, and keeping it up, are huge pieces of the picture,” Corcoran said.
Second, although per-pupil spending in ANwSU is rising, Corcoran said it is not climbing as fast as state calculations allow.
Towns are penalized if their per-pupil spending rises too fast, she said, and ANwSU boards have been mindful of their towns’ per-pupil costs. For example, Corcoran said, Ferrisburgh last year spent at 151 percent of the base statewide per-pupil spending rate, a number that dropped to 146 percent this year.
“The towns are slowing their spending per pupil,” she said. “They’re very conscious of it.”
Corcoran, a Waltham resident who plans to step down from her post in June, acknowledged that Vermont’s education funding system — with its CLAs, appraisal requirements, rebates, equalized pupil adjustments, spending penalties, per-pupil calculations and other complicated elements — remains a mystery to most.
But she said ANwSU’s experience this summer shows that the system can work to provide stable tax rates when all its elements are properly aligned.
“Even though the public and the legislature are impatient with the way the mechanisms are playing out,” Corcoran said, “they are playing out.”