City voters to consider bill-paying grace period

VERGENNES — Vergennes residents in March will have the chance to vote themselves a 15-day period during which they would be allowed to make late payments on tax and sewer bills without an interest penalty.
A provision for such a grace period is on the Town Meeting Day ballot adopted by Vergennes aldermen at their Tuesday meeting.
Current city laws call for a 1 percent penalty to be applied automatically if quarterly tax or sewer payments are even one day late, but City Hall workers urged aldermen to consider giving residents the power to make the change.
In many cases, said City Manager Mel Hawley and City Clerk Joan Devine, well-intentioned residents simply forget, are distracted by a momentary crisis, or need a couple days to raise the funds.
“We do feel really strongly we should have a grace period,” Hawley said, adding, “We feel that 15 days meets the need … for people that forget, or for people who get an illness in the family, or are having a tough time and need that paycheck next Thursday.”
Because there is now no such provision in city law, aldermen in their first January meeting had to deny a request to waive a penalty for upset taxpayers who had never been late with a payment, but accidentally missed one and had been hit with interest. That request, however, triggered a discussion that led to Tuesday’s decision.
Hawley and Devine said no issue has led to more upset residents, and if residents approve the change in March life in City Hall will become calmer.
“That meets the need of the people who forget to pay their taxes,” Devine said. “They do get frustrated.”
Aldermen had considered a 30-day grace period, but agreed with city employees that 15 days was enough.
“If it were 30 days long, people would abuse it,” said Mayor Michael Daniels.
In an earlier interview, Hawley said the state law that requires immediate penalties for late tax payments contains a provision that allows residents to create a grace period, and that other municipalities could make the change if they chose to do so.
Aldermen also moved closer to accepting from the soon-to-dissolve Vergennes ID school board the city’s recreation facilities, plus another roughly 8-acre parcel near Vergennes Union Elementary School.
City residents last year voted to dissolve that board, which has handled funding for busing, Early Essential Education and crossing guards that is now being rolled into the VUES budget. Before VUES was created, the ID board owned the land on which VUES was built, and the board still owns other nearby land that includes the city pool, tennis courts, skating rink and skateboard park.
The board must divest the real estate before it ceases to exist in June, and has offered the land to the city. Aldermen have hesitated while working out the costs of ownership and difficulty of maintaining the pool, but have leaned toward accepting the offer.
One issue was resolved in a letter from the ID board presented to aldermen on Tuesday: It made official that one final $10,283 bond payment on an earlier pool upgrade will go into the VUES budget, and school officials will not ask the city to pick up the tab.
Still to be resolved is what the letter estimated to be an $8,000 to $10,000 deficit in the ID board’s budget when it dissolves in June. Hawley told aldermen it didn’t appear to be a city issue because the law reads — vaguely in his opinion — that the deficit would be the responsibility of the “union district,” adding, “It’s crystal clear to me it says union district. It doesn’t say municipality.”
In an interview earlier in the day, Hawley said it might cost more to maintain the pool than currently because pool director Roland Guyette works above and beyond his $300 weekly salary for the pool’s three months of operation. Guyette detailed his lengthy preparation, shutdown and daily maintenance routines for aldermen at their first meeting.
Aldermen agreed with Hawley and Daniels to put the land transfer issue on their Feb. 9 agenda as an action item.
In other business, aldermen:
• Confirmed that the annual city report would be jointly dedicated to late longtime fire chief Ralph Jackman and recently retired public works employee Les Champine, who served Vergennes for 31 years.
• Heard from Hawley that the recently completed audit pegged the surplus from the 2008-2009 fiscal year at $82,000. Aldermen had expected at least $75,000, and used $25,000 in July to keep the municipal tax rate in check. Hawley said the audit also showed a healthy $59,000 balance in the city’s sewer fund.
• Were told by Hawley that he planned to apply for a $75,000 grant toward a sidewalk and handicap access platform project in front of Shear Cuts, Linda’s Apparel & Gifts and Addison Outfitters. Hawley said the estimated $150,000 cost would be shared with the property owners, and that the city’s $37,500 share could come from the Tower Fund.
• Heard from Hawley that delinquent tax collection has gone well, with only 10 of 929 property tax accounts in arrears, with all of those within one year of being current and half of those within outstanding balances of less than $200.
• Corrected a prior oversight by creating a committee to handle the more than $190,000 that former Vergennes Fire Department officer Ray Davison left the department to create a capital equipment fund. Appointed were Hawley, Fire Chief Jim Breur, Deputy Chief Jim Larrow, Christopher Dion, Bill Scott and Alderwoman Ziggy Comeau.
• Discussed at length but made no decision on whether to allow the Burlington tour boat “Moonlight Lady” to continue to reserve city dock space on many summer weekends. At issue is whether the up to 16 passengers on the 60-foot boat — all of whom dine on the boat — provide enough of an economic benefit to risk turning away other boaters who make the trip up Otter Creek from Lake Champlain.
Accounts were mixed on how many of the visitors left the boat and how many other boats would decline to stay if docks were full. Aldermen said they would study docking policy and would prepare a reduced schedule taking into account events slated for the Otter Creek basin area, and consider approving that Moonlight Lady schedule at a future meeting. The boat’s owner did offer $25 plus $5 per passenger for each time the Moonlight Lady docked.

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