Official ‘cultivates’ idea for aid from nonprofit groups

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Planning Commission Chairwoman Nancy Malcolm realizes that most local nonprofits don’t have a lot of green in the bank. But she is hoping that representatives of those nonprofits have green thumbs to help tend to public gardens as a way of giving back to the community in return for their tax-exempt status.
Specifically, Malcolm is suggesting that Middlebury-based nonprofits that don’t pay property taxes “adopt” a municipal garden, median strip or other small piece of public property to weed and maintain.
She stressed that the program would be voluntary and would not be targeted at nonprofits that already contribute to the town’s tax base through rent to taxpaying landlords, institutions like Middlebury College (which is already a major taxpayer and makes other financial and in-kind contributions), and entities that already have informal payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements with the town.
“This would give the various nonprofits an opportunity to give back to the Middlebury community that so graciously has supported them over the years,” Malcolm said. “It would also alleviate some of the stress on the town budget.”
She reasoned that the volunteer help from nonprofits’ staffs, board members and/or clients could free up municipal workers to tend to other areas of need. It should also be noted that volunteers like resident Al Stiles already tend to some public property in town. And the Middlebury Garden Club has voluntarily tended to flower beds at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Natural History.
Malcolm makes her suggestion as the town selectboard and staff get ready to fashion a fiscal year 2014-2015 municipal budget. It is expected, as usual, to be a tight one, with the board looking to pinch — and find — pennies wherever it can. The board has in the past asked nonprofits — many of which receive taxpayer contributions on Town Meeting Day — to consider contributions in lieu of taxes. Middlebury, as Addison County’s shire town, is home base to many nonprofits as well as tax-exempt state and federal buildings. There are 166 parcels of tax-exempt land in Middlebury, valued at a combined total of $424,612,709, according to Malcolm. There are 10 state properties in town valued at a combined $9,747,209, from which Middlebury received a total of $49,000 in lieu of taxes. The federal government — which locally owns hundreds of acres of national forestland and the post office building on Main Street — paid Middlebury a total of $7,841 in lieu of taxes in 2012.
“As citizens, we all have to step up, and this is a way for different (nonprofit entities) to do it,” she said of her gardening proposal.
Middlebury has no formal payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program. It has a long-term “fair share” agreement with Middlebury College through which the institution contributes money to the town budget. The nonprofit Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects contributes a small payment based on tenancies at its community services building on Boardman Street. Other nonprofits have also reached out to the town with various contributions throughout the years.
Robert Thorn, executive director of the Counseling Service of Addison County, said CSAC pays property taxes on roughly half of its Middlebury properties.
“Our board’s position is that we want to pay our fair share,” Thorn said.
But defining “fair share” could be difficult until the town drafts a formal policy, Thorn noted.
“We would love to have a discussion what is a fair and equitable way to address this issue,” Thorn said.
In the meantime, Thorn believes Malcolm’s idea is a good one.
“We are always looking at ways to become more connected to the community other than the services we provide,” Thorn said. “I love the idea.”
Barbara Saunders, co-director of the Mary Johnson Children’s Center, is also receptive to Malcolm’s proposal. The center has previously made contributions to the town based on its two buildings on Water Street and one in East Middlebury. And she noted the children’s center has, during the summer, helped tend to the nearby Mary Hogan Elementary School vegetable garden.
“We are open to discussion on the idea,” Saunders said.
Selectboard members last week said they were intrigued by Malcolm’s suggestion and will take it into consideration during their budget deliberations.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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