By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — People who shop and dine in Middlebury will notice a slight jump in their bills beginning this Wednesday, Oct. 1. That’s the date on which a 1-percent local option tax on sales, rooms, meals and alcohol will take effect in Addison County’s shire town.
The transition should be fairly seamless for most Middlebury merchants and lodgers, who will have to go through the time and expense of reprogramming their cash registers.
The state will collect the new tariff along with the existing state taxes. The Vermont Department of Taxes will then return 70 percent of the local option taxes it collects back to the town of Middlebury. The community will use the funds to help pay for the new Cross Street Bridge.
Backers of the new bridge are hopeful the new taxes will be painless for those who routinely shop and dine in Middlebury.
“I think during the course of people’s regular transactions, they aren’t going to notice it,” said Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny.
Townspeople last May voted 305 to 102 in favor of implementing the local option taxes, projected to raise $7 million over the next 30 years. That money will be combined with another $9 million that Middlebury College has agreed to contribute to the $16 million bridge project.
A 1-percent local option tax on sales, meals, rooms and alcohol would’ve netted Middlebury a combined total of $725,319 in 2007, according to the Department of Taxes.
The new bridge, slated for completion in 2010, will link Main Street with Court Street over the Otter Creek, via Cross Street. The project, which will include a roundabout intersection at Cross/College/Main streets, is designed to move traffic more smoothly through, and around, downtown Middlebury.
Town officials reasoned that a local options tax would also harness revenues from out-of-towners who would use the bridge and who currently contribute to Middlebury’s traffic load.
“In general, I think the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) recognizes the bridge is a regional project that will serve a regional population,” said BMP Coordinator Gail Freidin. The BMP until recently was known as the Middlebury Business Association.
Freidin doesn’t believe the local option taxes will drive many consumers away from Middlebury. She noted many of the other communities where locals go to shop — such as South Burlington, Rutland and Williston — have had local option taxes for several years.
“I think most people feel pretty confident (the new taxes) won’t deter more people from shopping out of town than already do,” Freidin said.
Not everyone is so sure.
Joseph Cotroneo III, owner of Middlebury Discount Beverage, was candid in his disdain for the local option taxes.
“I think it’s awful,” said Cotroneo, who said the tax increases will apply to virtually everything he sells. “It gives a competitive advantage to neighboring towns.”
Cotroneo said some of his customers have already told him they will have to take their business elsewhere.
He believes the town should have done some economic impact studies on the potential effects of the local option taxes at the same time they were commissioning studies on where to locate and new bridge.
“Don’t have 100 studies saying where to put the bridge, and no studies on how to pay for it,” said Cotroneo, who added he believes the town could have better spent the $16 million in bridge funds on scholarships or food programs.
Other merchants said that while new taxes are not a welcome sight — particularly in a slumping economy — they see the Cross Street Bridge as a worthwhile investment that could ultimately improve the shopping experience downtown.
Holmes Jacobs, co-owner of Two Brothers Tavern, said the business would likely post a sign informing customers of the new taxes.
“We don’t believe that a 1-percent increase will be a large deterrent,” Jacobs said. “Hopefully, (customers) will be happy to contribute to a project that will be to the betterment of Middlebury and Addison County.”
“I don’t think it will have that much of an effect on me,” Sweet Cecily owner Nancie Dunn said of the new tax. “I think it is definitely worthwhile.”
Micki Paddock, owner of the Inn on the Green, said she had mentioned the new tax to folks as they have been booking ahead for rooms.
“People so far haven’t had a particularly negative reaction,” Paddock said, adding “it has not been a deciding factor on whether they come or not.”