By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — A special tax district that has helped pay for more than $1.1 million in improvements to downtown Middlebury during the past 13 years will expire in 2010 unless supporters launch an effort to extend then levy.
Middlebury officials recently sent out the final tax bills for non-residential property owners in the town’s “Downtown Improvement District (DID),” an area that roughly encompasses the core village area. Local business leaders in 1996 successfully lobbied for the creation of the DID as a means of generating revenue for improvements to public property in the downtown area.
The special tax assessment of up to $100 per $100,000 in property value on affected properties has yielded between $30,000 and $34,000 annually. But that money has leveraged more than three times as much revenue in various grants and private donations.
Revenues and grants have resulted in several major upgrades to public amenities in the core village area, including a growing network of historic street lights, as well as better curbing, sidewalks, signs and park infrastructure.
The DID ordinance officially expires on June 30, 2010 — unless supporters elect to renew it for another seven years. That will require supporters to present selectmen with a petition bearing the names of at least two-thirds of the affected property owners in the DID. The ordinance was last renewed in 2002. More than 120 parcels are located within the district.
“We have such a high degree of local property ownership that we’ve never had an issue getting (the signatures needed),” said Gail Freidin, coordinator of the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP). “Not that it isn’t some work to go out and get the signatures — but every year is different… there is no certainty about what will happen.”
If signatures are collected and verified, the petition would go to selectmen, who would convene public hearings on the proposed extension of the district.
By most accounts, the DID has functioned well during its lifespan. Proponents said it has produced many tangible improvements to the downtown that would not have materialized without the special tax.
“I think (the ordinance) has functioned exactly in the way the people who envisioned it wanted it to work,” Freidin said. “It has leveraged money at a pretty high rate.”
Freidin cautioned that the ordinance may not leverage as much grant money in the future as it did in its early years. That’s in part because a growing number of Vermont communities have achieved “designated downtown” status, a state recognition that provides for better access to grant money.
“When the ordinance first passed, Middlebury was one of five or six designated downtowns that had access to some of these funds,” Freidin said. “Now there are around 20 or more designated downtowns that have access to the funds.”
Still, the DID revenues have provided critical matching funds that are consistently required by agencies that award grants, Freidin said.
“Though the environment has changed, continuing to have a regular and predictable source of matching funds is a huge asset in the grant-seeking world,” she said.
Boosters are also pleased with the sheer number of projects the DID has helped fund through the years.
“We’ve accomplished most of the things we’ve intended to accomplish,” Freidin said, citing public restrooms and additional public parking as two of the remaining, elusive goals on the DID list. Organizers would also like to see the historic light fixtures extended further into the district, in such areas as Seymour, South Pleasant, North Pleasant and Court streets.
Freidin acknowledges that the economy and recently instituted local option taxes (to help pay for the new Cross Street Bridge) might make it tougher for affected property owners to think about extending the DID tax. But she noted that at the same time, town leaders are proposing to eliminate Middlebury’s machinery and equipment tax over a six-year period, which should provide some relief on another front.
Bruce Hiland, co-owner of Middlebury’s Battell Block and past president of the BMP, said he has been pleased with how the DID has performed.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “Historically, it’s done just what it set out to do, and you can’t say that about a lot of governmental tax entities.”
Hiland said he favors reauthorization of the DID and “a little more flexibility in how the (tax) revenues are spent.” He believes some of the money could be spent on promotional banners, for example, rather than exclusively on capital improvements.
Bill Perkins is a Middlebury selectmen and a member of the DID Commission. He said he believes the DID revenues (if reauthorized) should continue to support district improvements. Perkins added that while he supports the BMP, he does not favor the organization’s recent request that it receive some funding from the DID. BMP officials have worked on behalf of the DID throughout the years.
“The BMP represents a far wider group of businesses and people. The merchants who pay the tax assessment should reap the benefit of those dollars,” Perkins said. “I would feel more comfortable if the BMP came to the town and we voted for a (funding request) at town meeting.”
Perkins said he believes the DID has “functioned very well. People, in a rare display of unselfishness, have voted to tax themselves.”