Middlebury asks state reps for school tax reform and Rt. 7 rotary

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday gave its legislative delegation a brief but sharply worded wish list for the 2015 session: Give us a rotary at the intersection of Route 7 and Exchange Street, along with education finance reform.
The board conveyed that message to the four Democratic lawmakers taking part in the meeting: Sen. Christopher Bray of New Haven, Sen. Claire Ayer of Addison, Rep. Betty Nuovo of Middlebury, and Rep.-elect Amy Sheldon of Middlebury.
Dean George, chairman of the Middlebury selectboard, noted the town has for more than 15 years been lobbying the Vermont Agency of Transportation for a roundabout north of the village where Exchange Street and Happy Valley Road meet Route 7. It is one of the more hazardous intersections in the community.
More business activity within Middlebury’s industrial park has led to increased traffic on Exchange Street seeking to exit onto Route 7. There is currently no traffic signal at that location and vehicles making the turn onto Route 7 must contend with busy traffic traveling in excess of 50 miles per hour. Site visibility is such that vehicles turning north onto Route 7 can have a speeding car on their tail in short order. Local officials have said the intersection has seen its share of fender benders, though fortunately no fatal accidents.
“It’s of critical importance,” George said of an Exchange Street/Route 7 roundabout.
He said it is critical not only for public safety but also for the town’s economic development. George noted the substandard nature of that intersection could stunt business growth in Middlebury’s industrial park. Specifically, he and his colleagues are concerned that dangers posed by the current intersection could make the Act 250 process more arduous on entrepreneurs proposing future business development in the park.
George noted the town has discussed the roundabout with the Addison County Regional Planning Commission and the four most recent VTrans secretaries. But the project has yet to receive funding and get off the drawing board. Sue Minter was recently named secretary of VTrans, succeeding Brian Searles.
Nuovo said she approached VTrans officials on Monday about the intersection and was told that Middlebury should make sure that the intersection is registered as a priority project with the regional planning commission. Selectboard members said they have already taken that step.
“You’d be surprised at how dangerous that intersection has become,” Selectman Brian Carpenter said.
George believes Middlebury’s roundabout proposal should get some extra consideration from the state, given that the community and Middlebury College put together the financing plan for the $16 million Cross Street Bridge project without getting money from the state. The town had been unable to get state support assistance for the plan since an in-town bridge was first proposed during the mid-1950s.
Legislators promised to lobby hard for the roundabout proposal, though it comes at a time when the state is facing budget challenges and a revenue shortfall.
“We can make sure you are heard (in Montpelier), that’s for sure,” Ayer said via speakerphone from her Addison home during Tuesday’s snowstorm.
Selectboard members also urged the board to not only discuss — but also enact — some kind of education finance reform. The board has not chosen to sign onto a letter offered by the South Burlington City Council calling for a two-year freeze on the statewide education property tax. But Middlebury officials served notice that they want lawmakers to address the topic before the end of the 2015 session, citing the financial stress many area residents are feeling.
Selectwoman Donna Donahue suggested the Legislature examine the comparatively low student-teacher ratios in Vermont and consider measures to increase those numbers. This would mean reducing personnel expenses at schools.
Bray noted the Legislature’s ability to act on this subject is being affected by Vermonters’ apprehension (thus far) about consolidating schools and/or school districts, which could be another money-saver. And local control over schools has historically been a hallmark of the Green Mountain State.
“Individual schools are setting the (student-teacher ratios) for themselves,” Bray said.
And when it comes down to fine tuning school budgets through staff layoffs, Bray said it’s often difficult for residents “to cut people you know.”
An ad hoc legislative study committee has identified three possible avenues through which to reduce school property taxes. They include a variable income tax proposal, a system of regional block grants, or trying to improve the current education funding law, Act 68. Middlebury’s legislative delegation said it would study all three ideas, among other things, in an effort to pass education finance reform next session.
Selectboard members warned they don’t want to see the problem passed on to a summer study committee by the end of the session. Selectman Gary Baker said he has heard the suggestion of a five-year study of the problem.
“To me, that’s unacceptable,” Baker said. “We’ll be broke by then.”
“We are not looking for more studies,” Selectwoman Susan Shashok added. “We are looking for change.”
Bray acknowledged that concerns over school taxes have reached a breaking point for many Vermonters.
“I talk to many people who are having trouble making ends meet,” Bray said. “It’s truer for a larger percentage of people I know.”
Carpenter warned that turnover seen in the 2014 General Election will likely continue in 2016 absent any movement on tax reform.
“If you don’t get it, people will continuously get voted out of office,” Carpenter said.
Ayer said she and her colleagues understand the problem and the need to solve it. She also noted the Vermont General Assembly includes 180 members with various divergent opinions. But she added education finance reform is something that both major parties want to get done.
“It has not been a partisan issue,” Ayer said. “I’m sure education funding will be one of the top three priorities in the Senate this year.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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