There has been much discussion at meetings and in the local media regarding the proposed Economic Business Development Fund that Middlebury's voters will be asked to support this year. As a member of the Selectboard I share a responsibility for the town's financial integrity, its quality-of-life, and in helping to find opportunities for our residents and businesses to succeed. This includes advocating for well planned, quality economic development to increase employment and educational opportunities, strengthen existing businesses and provide a chance for new businesses to start, and to continue the high quality of services in this community. This responsibility has kept me closely involved in the progress toward an Economic Business Development Fund and led me to support its approval.
Compared to many communities nationwide Middlebury has weathered the economic downturn better than most. Our unemployment rates are not as high and our real estate prices have not fallen as far as many other regions. As someone who travels extensively for work, I see many communities that are far worse off than we are. Nonetheless, Middlebury has not escaped the reality of job losses and economic hardships.
At least 500 of our friends, relatives and neighbors have lost their jobs over the past decade as several longtime employers including Standard Register, Geiger and Earth's Best consolidated and moved from the area. This has forced a number of us to commute long distances for work or work multiple jobs with less time to spend at home with our families. Fortunately, we have some outstanding companies who are adding to the area’s employment, but they cannot completely make up the overall job losses.
The loss of business and employment has impacted the town's budget with reductions in the grand list and subsequent decrease in tax revenues. Consequently, there are fewer taxpayers to payfor public safety, road maintenance, recreational facilities, and all the other services that Middlebury provides. The town portion of the property tax bill has remained relatively stable due the town's administration and department managers who have controlled their budgets, and all of the dedicated employees who are constantly looking for efficiencies to streamline operating costs.
As a result, even though grand list revenues have been flat Middlebury has been able to maintain quality service levels without rapid rises in property taxes. However, after several years of effort, there are few if any opportunities for future departmental budget reductions without impacting services. This means that the current and future selectboards will be faced with three budget scenarios.
The first option will continue to maintain current service levels in all departments even though the current forecast for grand list growth is low. We know with our homes and businesses that the costs for many items from energy to health care and maintenance continue to increase and this is true with the town’s operations as well. In one example, heating costs for the municipal office building and gymnasium has risen more than 60 percent over the past two years while the recent five-year period has seen an increase for winter use road salt increase from $44 per ton to more than $62 per ton. If we choose this direction, tax rates will need to increase to compensate for inflation. We are all too aware that current Middlebury tax rates put a strain on household and business budgets and increases are not desirable.
The second choice will retain current tax rates and reduce public services to match the town's income. This will require difficult decisions that may include, but not be limited to, reduced recreation events, cuts to infrastructure maintenance and capital improvements, decreased library and gymnasium hours, and the reduction or elimination of town funding for some social services. These will be unfortunate but necessary for the town to live within its means. One of the many negatives of this option is that town infrastructure enhancements, such as improving energy efficiency, may not be achieved which can ultimately lead to higher operating costs. Another concern is that reductions may harm Middlebury's opportunity to attract new, quality businesses. As with the first option this is not a desirable direction.
The third choice is to creatively find new opportunities and revenue sources that will allow Middlebury to maintain its quality of life without excessive increases in the property tax burden. Many communities are looking for similar answers and the competition is great. Therefore we need a dedicated approach that focuses on Middlebury’s distinctive benefits, including a strong work ethic, solid infrastructure, high quality water, many dedicated educational orgnizations, and an overall commitment to avoid the haphazard development that is found throughout much of the country. This effort should include helping our present companies increase their market reach, using our unique bond with Quebec to attract companies from that province, and potentially attract quality European companies who share many of our values. I believe that this is the best option for Middlebury’s financial security.
The Economic Development Business Fund, which will be used to hire a director and pay expenses associated with the position (office, travel, etc.), represents one important part of the plan to keep Middlebury in a competitive position and increase opportunities. Therefore we are all being asked to support a five-year investment to initiate this effort, which assuming its success can provide quality jobs close to home and may help to minimize future tax increases by expanding the grand list and local option tax revenues.
There certainly are no guarantees, but as I look at the outstanding and committed individuals and organizations who have been involved to date, I have to believe that this is a great opportunity and the time to proceed is now. Please support this effort and become a part of our future.