Middlebury says ‘no’ to tax break for Aqua ViTea

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard has denied Aqua ViTea’s request for tax stabilization, but selectboard members at their Feb. 27 meeting said they want to explore the idea of a revolving loan fund that could help local businesses grow in Addison County’s shire town.
Aqua ViTea, a growing kombucha manufacturer, had requested a five-year suspension of the municipal property tax levy on its headquarters at 153 Pond Lane. That reduction would have totaled around $92,400.
“Aqua ViTea has grown year-over-year by more than 50 percent for the past 5 years,” company CFO Jordan Benjamin wrote in the tax stabilization application. “For Aqua ViTea to succeed with the next growth phase, it is imperative that state and local government continue their support in recognition of the long-term positive impacts that a health-minded, community-based business will provide to a small town and state.”
Benjamin told selectboard members Aqua ViTea would be worth the tax stabilization investment, as it:
•  Plans to add approximately 10-12 employees in 2018. Those employees would be hired at annual salaries ranging from $35,000 to $80,000.
•  Would be able to offset the short-term effects of tax stabilization on the town’s grand list through the long-term impacts of the new jobs it will create.
•  Would pass along its acquired tax stabilization benefits to other emerging companies seeking to rent a portion of Aqua ViTea’s sprawling 63,000-square-foot Pond Lane facility.
“For an expectation of job creation, warehouse tenants may bring two to three new employees to Middlebury in 2018, while beverage production tenants may bring as many as 6 to 12 employees,” Benjamin estimated.
Middlebury’s Tax Stabilization Task Force recently reviewed Aqua ViTea’s application and voted 3-1, with one member absent, to recommend the selectboard deny it. The panel based its negative recommendation on the fact that Aqua ViTea was not proposing any new construction, and had not “demonstrated measurable benefits to maximize the grand list and minimize the property tax burden. Rather, the application would increase the property tax burden to other residents and businesses.”
Task force Chairperson Heather Seeley said she was disappointed Aqua ViTea’s request doesn’t fit the criteria of the town’s current tax stabilization policy. That policy, among other things, places a premium on applications that “maximize and stabilize the grand list of Middlebury,” and that “minimize the property tax burdens of residential and farm properties in Middlebury.”
“I would like to figure out how to help this company grow in the town of Middlebury, but I don’t think this tax stabilization policy can do that for where they are with their business right now,” Seeley told her colleagues. “I think a revolving loan fund, as proposed and envisioned at this point, would be a better way to help them.”
Seeley, also a selectboard member, noted the board will soon begin work on a strategic plan, and suggested a revolving loan fund be part of that discussion.
Benjamin encouraged the board to find new ways to help growing businesses. He added he’s pleased to see Middlebury revisit its business incentive policy.
“The task force was created to review the policy and our application, and the task force struggled through the intent, the purpose and the criteria for which to approve the application,” Benjamin said.
Aqua ViTea, according to Benjamin, hoped its application would encourage a new economic development dialogue with the town.
“We have, in part, stayed with this application because it forces the question about what Aqua ViTea feels is a critical component of the health of Middlebury, and that question is, ‘What type of incentives and resources should Middlebury have available to attract and retain businesses that have the potential to improve the character and quality of life here?’” Benjamin said.
Middlebury selectboard member Brian Carpenter invited Benjamin and other members of the business community to participate in planning for a revolving loan fund.
“We appreciate you driving us to this discussion,” he said. “It’s really where we want to go as a board; we needed a catalyst.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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