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Middlebury's charter change on fast track

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MONTPELIER — In a venue where the passage of legislation is often measured in months, a bill that would pave the way for Middlebury to adopt local option taxes to help fund a new in-town bridge shot through the Statehouse like a meteor last week.

“We could have hardly asked for a better alignment of the planets,” said Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington, who spent last Wednesday, April 9, testifying on behalf of the town before various legislative committees.

The Middlebury charter change bill was scheduled to hit Gov. James Douglas’s desk by Friday, April 11. Douglas, a Middlebury Republican, has already said he supports the bill and its purpose of allowing Middlebury the option of generating around $7 million toward a new in-town bridge at Cross Street in the downtown.

Douglas’s expected signature on the bill would allow selectmen to proceed with their goal of holding a town meeting vote in late May on implementing local options taxes of 1 percent on sales, rooms, meals and/or alcohol purchases in town to raise revenues for the bridge project.

Middlebury College has already pledged $9 million toward the $16 million undertaking, which will include a roundabout intersection at Main and Cross streets.

Individual towns in Vermont cannot levy their own taxes unless their charter, which is approved by the Legislature, allows it. Middlebury’s charter did not allow local taxes.

Reps. Steve Maier and Betty Nuovo, both Middlebury Democrats, got the legislative ball rolling last month after townspeople voted in favor of the in-town bridge project and to proceed with the charter change.

The bill made its way through the House Government Operations and House Ways and Means Committees before coming to the House floor on Tuesday, April 8. The House agreed to suspend its procedural rules to allow for the bill to be voted out of the chamber on the same day it was brought to the floor.

From there, the bill flew through the Senate Government Operations and Senate Finance Committees on Wednesday, with help from Addison County’s two Democratic state senators, Claire Ayer of Weybridge and Harold Giard of Bridport.

Dunnington said Ayer proved to be a particularly effective ally as she is a member of both Senate committees that reviewed the bill. She is also Senate majority whip.

Thursday saw the Senate suspend rules and pass the bill by a 29-1 tally. The lone dissenter was Sen. Mark MacDonald, an Orange County Democrat. MacDonald, during a telephone interview on Thursday, said he voted “no” for two reasons. First, he said he believes local option taxes are regressive and are particularly onerous on poor people who shop in nearby, property-wealthy towns that have the capacity to implement such taxes.

Second, he said he is concerned that if communities like Middlebury increasingly use their own resources for roads and bridges, state aid for such improvements could evolve into a “welfare” program for poorer communities that could be cut when times are tough.

“It’s the Legislature’s job to be even-handed,” MacDonald said.

Once the charter change bill is signed, Middlebury could levy a 1 percent tax on local sales, meals, rooms and/or alcohol. The goal is to raise upwards of $725,000 annually. That money — along with a commitment of $600,000 per year from Middlebury College — would be applied to debt service on a 30-year, $16 million bond issue to fund the new in-town bridge.

Middlebury selectmen could hold a meeting as early as this week to adopt a timetable for the local options tax vote and one or more informational meetings that will precede it.

Late last week Dunnington said the Australian ballot vote could possibly be held May 20 with at least one informational meeting. The timing of the vote was critical because officials felt they needed to get details of a bond to pay for the bridge wrapped up by July 1. To meet that deadline they must warn a vote 30 days in advance and leave 30 days after in case someone petitioned for a revote. Selectmen also had to consider whether they wanted to hold a vote near the Memorial Day weekend, when voters may be out of town.

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