Midd votes out tax on equipment

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury residents at their town meeting on Monday resoundingly approved their municipal budget, then went to the polls the next day to elect a new selectman and eliminate the community’s machinery and equipment (M&E) tax over the course of the next six years.
Residents voted 531 to 113 to phase out the M&E tax, a levy that opponents said had become archaic, difficult to verify and an impediment to economic growth in Middlebury. Still, the M&E tax last year poured about $258,000 into the town’s coffers, an amount equivalent to almost four cents on the tax rate. The selectboard, at the urgency of the Better Middlebury Partnership, appointed a committee to study the M&E tax and whether it should be eliminated.
National Bank of Middlebury President G. Kenneth Perine chaired that six-member committee, which advocated that the tax be jettisoned. Perine explained the rationale to town meeting attendees on Monday. He noted that M&E tax revenues have declined during each of the past four fiscal years. He added that anticipated depreciation of machinery and equipment value at one local company in 2012 is expected to result in a 23-percent decline in M&E tax revenues. Currently, 70 accounts — or 14 percent of the total 493 of M&E taxpayers — account for 89 percent of the revenues from the levy, according to Perine.
“The elimination of the tax will create a more competitive economic environment,” Perine told the crowd of around 130 town meeting attendees. “And I should note that no major towns in our region have the M&E tax.”
The phase-out is expected to cost Middlebury $63,000 in lost revenues next year, but selectmen were able to find economies or revenue in other parts of the budget to offset the loss.
Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny told the crowd that the M&E tax phase-out has already paid some dividends. As reported last month in the Addison Independent, Green Mountain Beverage has elected to expand at its Pond Lane headquarters in Middlebury rather than relocate to Brandon. The prospect of shedding the M&E tax — along with promised breaks on water/sewer tap-on fees and a potential tax stabilization pact — helped seal the deal in keeping Green Mountain Beverage in Addison County’s shire town.
“It is a signal to all that Middlebury is open for business,” Tenny said.
In the only contested elections on Tuesday, resident Travis Forbes edged Brian Bauer, 89-86, in a write-in campaign for a three-year selectboard vacancy that had no takers at the time of the January filing deadline for elective offices; while Chris Watters topped Jacob Haigh, 425 to 164, for a five-year term on the Ilsley Public Library Board of Trustees.
Bauer and Forbes were competing belatedly for a vacancy left by incumbent Selectman Don Keeler, who decided not to run for re-election. The other two incumbent selectboard members on the ballot — Janelle Ashley and Nick Artim — easily won re-election to three-year terms.
Residents on Monday overwhelmingly endorsed, by voice vote, a fiscal year 2011 municipal budget of $8,133,210, of which $5,571,874 will be raised through local property taxes. It’s a budget that maintains the same municipal tax rate (for the second year in a row) of 80.9 cents per $100 in property value. It’s a spending plan that officials said would preserve current municipal jobs and keep town services at the same level.
Some residents asked town officials if the budget was perhaps too lean, specifically as it relates to employee salaries. The selectboard did not grant a cost of living pay increase to non-union employees this year, in spite of the fact there was money built into the budget to do so. And while the board was contractually obligated to give union workers a salary bump this year, the current union pact expires on June 30 and the fiscal year 2011 budget does not include money for pay raises for any town workers.
Tenny said that with the current economic climate characterized by layoffs and household budget cuts, the selectboard decided that such pain should also be reflected within town government.
Should a newly negotiated workers’ contract require a raise next year, Tenny said “we would have to make changes in the other parts of the budget to accommodate it. It is not a large enough amount of money to tip the apple cart.”
Once again, the Battell Trust helped the town soften the impact of the municipal budget by agreeing, for a second year in a row, to use roughly $71,000 of its rental proceeds from the Chipman Hill telecommunications tower to defray a penny on the tax rate that had been earmarked for Middlebury land conservation fund. Voters endorsed that action unanimously by voice vote on Monday.
They also resoundingly approved a request to take out a $203,000, five-year loan to allow the town to acquire a police cruiser and related equipment; a single-axle, 7-yard dump/plow truck; a push blade; and a turntable plow.
Monday’s annual gathering featured one conspicuous absence. Longtime town Moderator and Vermont Gov. James Douglas was out of state attending the American Medical Association (AMA) 2010 National Advocacy Conference in Washington D.C. Voters agreed to allow UD-3 board Chairman Tom Beyer to serve as moderator. Douglas on Tuesday was elected, unopposed, in his bid for another term as town moderator and he is not seeking another term as governor.
HUMANE SOCIETY FUNDING
The one bit of suspense at Monday’s meeting came rather late in the evening when voters rejected, by a 70-64 margin, a request by the Addison County Humane Society ACHS for $5,000 to help sustain its programs to help abandoned and abused animals. It was the first time the ACHS has requested an appropriation, which it petitioned to get on the town meeting warning.
Selectboard members had voiced concern that ACHS officials had not talked to them prior to town meeting to explain how the funds would be directed. Some voters questioned the size of the request, as it was substantially higher than some of the other human service agency requests.
Jackie Rose, executive director of the ACHS, apologized for not presenting the request to the selectboard beforehand. She said the organization believed the request was fair, given the fact that 27 percent of the 792 animals the ACHS took in last year were from the town of Middlebury. She noted the ACHS only accepts animals within Addison County, does not receive state or federal funds and does not euthanize animals for space reasons.
“We are asking Middlebury to support our activities,” Rose said.
Middlebury voters first defeated an amendment that would have reduced the ACHS request to $2,000. The main motion for $5,000 failed by a 70-64 showing of hands.
Resident Natalie Peters perhaps summed up some of the opponents’ feelings. She said that while she supported efforts to aid animals in need, “I am not about to do more for the animals than I am for the people.” She suggested the selectboard consider increasing financial contributions to programs helping people in need. Those funding requests have been level-funded — with a few exceptions — for the past several years.
BRIDGE UPDATE AND OTHER BUSINESS
In other action at their town meeting, Middlebury residents:
• Agreed to appropriate $1,500 for Addison County Readers Inc., an organization that raises money to send books to pre-school aged children throughout the county.
• Agreed to establish a reserve fund to pay for new technology in recording, preserving and providing public access to Middlebury land records. The fund will be bankrolled with the recently implemented $2 increase (per page) in recording fees, which should yield $10,000 to $12,000 annually, according to Middlebury Town Clerk Ann Webster.
• Received an update on the Cross Street Bridge project. John Walsh of Kubricky Construction and Mark Colgan of VHB Engineering told residents that work on the massive span over the Otter Creek in downtown Middlebury has been largely suspended until late March. They warned that traffic disrupting work will resume this spring, first with creation of a new road (Academy Street) that will link College Street with Franklin and Main streets.
Work will continue during the summer on portions of Cross Street, College Street, Bakery Lane, Water Street and Court Street. One of the biggest undertakings, slated for early this summer, will be the creation of a roundabout intersection involving Main, Park, Cross and College streets. Walsh and Colgan said the work would be done in two phases on the rotary in order to preserve traffic movement through the downtown.
Plans call for the new bridge to be open for traffic this October.
Area residents voiced concern about the potential impact of the project on businesses and commuters.
“It’s not something we can do in the winter,” said Colgan, who added the major work would not coincide with Middlebury College graduation. “We will make it as easy as we can on you. It has to be done and you are going to have to let us in to do it.”
The Addison Independent will keep readers abreast of the project as it moves forward. Middlebury’s Web site, www.middlebury.govoffice.com, will also feature updates.
• Elected in uncontested races on Tuesday were Lucy Schumer and Ruth Hardy, for three-year terms on the Mary Hogan Elementary School board; Beth Dow, lister, three years; and Lorraine Gonzalez Morse, UD-3 board, three years.
John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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