Editorial, Middlebury taxes: A tipping point?

With foresight, faith and determination, Middlebury voters approved adding a penny on the tax rate for the next five years to initiate a Middlebury Business Development Fund in the hopes of, as the slogan said, creating “good jobs close to home.” Voters also OK’d renovating the fire stations at a cost of $4.65 million, or about 4.5 cents on the tax rate. While other town expenses were held to a minimum, town residents and the business community still face an intimidating property tax bill.
Swift House Inn owner/manager Dan Brown addressed the crowd at Town Meeting with that very concern, imploring the town to revisit how the fire station fund might be financed and cautioning against future capital-intensive projects. In so many words, Brown was saying: ‘Hey, I’m all in favor of the fire station fund and of the business development fund, but we have to recognize that the taxes in this town really cause some hardships for a lot of businesses.’
He then outlined the bitter pill he has to swallow each year: he pays about $50,000 in property taxes currently; the fire bond will add $1,100-plus to that sum the first year and go up considerably for the next several years before heading back down again. If town taxes continue to increase as they have for the past decade, he said, he’ll be paying close to $65,000 in taxes a decade from now. That’s not pocket change.
Nor is the Swift House Inn alone. The taxes at the Middlebury Inn have to be comparable, at least. Ditto the Waybury Inn, the Courtyard-Marriott, and then there’s the impact on the Lodge at Otter Creek, Eastview at Middlebury Retirement Community, the Battell Partnership, the Marble Works Business District, Marble Works Residences (condos), not to mention the larger industries on Exchange Street — Agri-mark/Cabot, Woodchuck Cider, Vermont Sun Fitness Center, and many others.
In short, when Middlebury voters add 4.5 cents to the tax rate for a new fire station, it places a big burden on the town’s commercial sector. Brown’s very real concern is that there is a tipping point on property taxes and the town is very close to going over it.
And yet, the town faces a few significant capital improvements in the near future. Two are most obvious: the railroad underpasses on Main Street and Merchants Row, and upgrading of the town’s municipal building. The first project will be paid with state and federal funds, and some funding from the town -— as both railroad underpasses go under town roads. The town will pay 100 percent of the municipal building and if the fire station upgrades were $4.65 million, expect to double that.
Ouch. Adding another 8 cents to the tax rate would be untenable, at least anytime soon.
So, what’s to be done? First, let’s agree that any town, like any business, needs to be in constant motion — always upgrading, improving itself, staying up with the times and looking ahead. We can’t afford to turtle down, to pull our head and appendages inside our shell and wait for better times. But neither can we damn the torpedoes and push full-stream ahead, ignoring the tax consequences. To that end, we’d propose an ad hoc committee to address two short-term issues:
• First, let’s revisit how to finance the $4.6 million fire station bond. It was the old-school approach premised on the belief that the bond faced no substantial opposition: finance it over 20 years and let the public pay the significant amount of interest. But perhaps there are more creative ways to refinance that obligation that would lessen the tax burden. It may not bear fruit, but it’s a question worth pursuing.
• Second, look at the remaining capital projects (the big ones, not the routine) the town must tackle over the next decade, consider the tax impact of those projects, then rank by priority in terms of serving the public good. Work on ways to reduce taxpayer costs, while providing the necessary services to the public.
It’s a year’s work for a committee that continues an important and successful tradition established over the past few years: reaching outside of the selectboard to involve businesses, manufacturers, institutions and residents at the very start of the discussion. Voices like Mr. Brown’s would be an important addition to any large projects slated in the near future.
Angelo S. Lynn

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