Editorial: Middlebury’s DID is a solid tax strategy to build upon

In an interesting discussion of the future of Middlebury’s Downtown Improvement District, members of the DID commission, the selectboard and area businesses were right last Tuesday night at the selectboard meeting to question a continuation of the status quo. As it has been for the past 21 years, additional taxes have been assessed on the 119 affected downtown commercial properties to make improvements to the downtown.
The initial theory, adopted in 1996, was that downtown business property owners would most benefit from downtown improvements, so they should be tagged with the entire expense — even though all residents of the town benefit.
And much has been done. Historic street lights were added to the downtown on Main Street and Merchants Row. Power lines were buried, creating a far superior vista on Main Street toward the Congregational Church steeple. Downtown parks were improved (including Fountain Park and Cannon Park), and a sidewalk was added to Mill Street, just to name a few of the projects done over the past two decades. In all, the annual $34,000 average in tax revenue generated around $714,000 in taxes over two decades, but leveraged state grants and other revenue sources to yield $1.7 million in improvements.
It’s that extra $1 million in leveraged funds that makes this type of taxation a wise strategy.
It’s also that specific projects were addressed that might not have otherwise been approved at a Town Meeting vote had such initiatives funneled through the town’s General Fund. Would town taxpayers have paid to erect historic street lights in the downtown, or spent the money to improve town parks or pay extra for the downtown’s curbing?
Having the tax paid by a smaller group of taxpayers, and having a special commission devoted to studying what projects should be considered and which deserved the highest priorities, were all part of the strategy and logic that has made the DID so successful.
That’s not to say the DID should not be revised. It could be be time, after this current seven-year renewal expires in 2024, to expand the tax burden as was suggested by several business owners. One model is for the town to insert a line-item in the General Fund each year that perhaps raised an even larger annual stipend, thus leveraging greater grant dollars in a shorter period of time for special projects. For example, if a townwide tax raised $75,000 annually (effectively doubling the amount that could be leveraged in half the time, even while reducing the DID tax rate), then tackling projects like a downtown parking garage, a train depot, or perhaps improvements along the Otter Creek waterfront could save taxpayers substantial dollars in the long-run.
Perhaps, a similar strategy could be used for improvements within the Exchange Street/Industrial Park corridor.
Certainly, adding any tax should not be taken lightly and not used frivolously, but to the extent projects need to be addressed, this is an efficient way to raise funds that shifts more than half the burden off the local taxpayer. That’s not a strategy to dismiss, but rather to build upon.
Angelo Lynn

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